The Counselor: Film Review

A beautiful bummer.

Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz lead an all-star cast for Cormac McCarthy's screenwriting debut.

Despite its scaldingly hot cast and formidable writer/director combination, The Counselor is simply not a very likable or gratifying film. In fact, it's a bummer. Set mostly within a certain elite, mostly American adjunct to the corrosive Mexican drug trade, Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay features some trademark bizarre violence and puts some elevated and eloquent words into the mouths of some deeply disreputable figures. The main characters may be twisted but they're not very interesting and, crucially, you can guess, as well as dread, what's coming from very early on. The stars, exotic sex and creative violence will draw an audience looking for classy cheap thrills, but widespread disappointment will yield less impressive box-office numbers than such an illustrious package would ideally generate, at least domestically.

A pretty tasty talk-and-sex scene played by Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz within a cocoon of white sheets gets things off to a good start, but there's not much more where that came from in this sordid cautionary tale that warns that this is no country even for beautiful people. It's the sort of queasy yarn in which you just know that the love-struck exchange between Fassbender's Counselor and his beautiful sweetheart -- "I want to love you until I die." "Me first." -- will be turned from a beautiful sentiment into a doom-laden prediction with a short deadline.

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Unlike No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers McCarthy adaptation that hit the cinematic jackpot artistically and commercially, there are no cops or otherwise ordinary folks at the center of things here (except perhaps for Cruz's Laura, who is not much seen). Instead, there's a bunch of wealthy weirdos, bright and colorful people who either never had or subsequently discarded the morality gene. Like the pet cheetahs so admired by Cameron Diaz's elaborate and depraved Malkina, who has tattooed her body with leopard-like spots, these people live to hunt and hunt to kill.

The Counselor, who goes by no other name, has clearly done very well over the years with his client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a spiky-haired, big-spirited soul who enjoys a lavishly vulgar lifestyle with Malkina, who sports a ring as big as a grapefruit and lives to push the sexual envelope. Her idea of a good time is to go to confession, even though she isn't Catholic, just to outrage the priest with details of her wild activities, which might include an interlude we see of her doing the splits and gyrating on the windshield of Reiner's Bentley while he watches from the seat; she's disappointed when he doesn't get turned on, as he deems the display "too gynecological to be sexy."

The Counselor drives a Bentley too (in fact, the film is embarrassingly overloaded with high-end product placement) and he travels to Amsterdam just to buy Laura an expensive diamond ring, so he's obviously doing just fine. However, despite an explicit warning about the risks from Reiner, the Counselor wants in on a very large upcoming drug deal, probably imagining that he'll retire from the game with Laura thereafter.

Early on, Reiner asks the Counselor if he knows what a bolito is, then describes it as a wind-up wire device that's extremely effective at slicing people's necks. You just know you're going to see this thing in action before it's all over, and it's not the only wire-as-weapon McCarthy and Scott fetishistically employ in the numerous violent passages, so much so that there's actually a character named Wireman.

Also involved as some sort of middleman in the big deal going down is Westray (Brad Pitt), who even more explicitly than Reiner advises the Counselor not to get involved. Inadvertently, however, he gets sucked in when he does a favor on the outside for a hard-bitten prisoner (Rosie Perez, very good). Just when it wasn't certain that McCarthy's vision of the world could get much darker, here he explicitly imperils his hero-by-default via the positive action of doing a good deed. Although this is not a mystery story per se, in the end it really becomes an issue of who's going to be the last one standing.

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The trouble is, it's no fun -- not even dirty, sordid, delicious fun. This being a Ridley Scott film, the images are always fabulous to behold (Dariusz Wolski, who shot Prometheus and is now doing Exodus with the director, was the luxuriant cinematographer), but here they are employed mainly to show off the lifestyle -- locations, vehicles, clothes, jewelry, makeup, haircuts; it's a like two-hour commercial for a no-limit credit card. The nominal lead is no more knowable than his name and there's little Fassbender can add to the character other than to become progressively more sweaty and desperate in the manner of so many old film noir heroes stuck in a spider's web.

As far as dazzling villains are concerned, the third time is not the charm for Bardem, after his unforgettable turns in No Country for Old Men and Skyfall; Reiner seems only dissolute and beyond caring, not ravenously evil, his Brian Grazer-ish hair and loud wardrobe remaining his most defining emblems. Pitt's ambiguous outsider, who, like the Counselor, seems to be clearing an escape path for himself, has a way with words that's passably entertaining, while Diaz's Malkina is like the Madonna or Lady Gaga of the criminal underworld, an edge-pusher with a bent for calculated shocks, a woman with a perennial advantage based on her no-rules mindset.

What one is left with is a very bleak ending and an only slightly less depressing sense of the waste of a lot of fine talent both behind and in front of the camera.

Production: Fox 2000 Pictures, Scott Free, Nick Wechsler, Chockstone Pictures
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Sam Spruell, Toby Kebbell, Edgar Ramirez, Ruben Blades, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Cormac McCarthy
Producers: Ridley Scott, Nick Wechsler, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz
Executive producers: Cormac McCarthy, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Michael Costigan
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Music: Daniel Pemberton

Rated R, 113 minutes