Release: Friday, October 25, 2013
“If you keep heading down this path, you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.”
So forewarns the enigmatic night club owner, Reiner, played by a very colorful Javier Bardem in Ridley Scott’s latest suspense thriller, based on the first original screenplay penned by Cormac McCarthy. He was speaking to Michael Fassbender’s Counselor character in the film, but the line’s also apropos of anyone waiting in line to buy a ticket to see The Counselor, the film itself.
Scott’s latest is the schoolyard bully of fall 2013 releases. Unsparing in its austerity, substitution of prose for dialogue and inclusion of jolting and unsettling violence, his direction demonstrates he’s clearly not over the loss of his brother, Tony — which is certainly an understandable issue. But whereas his finished product simply screams misery, it could have cleverly suggested it (I’ve always felt Scott has been a director of subtlety, even in dealing with profound subjects like in Prometheus) and his counseling, therefore, ain’t a great deal of fun to sit through. The anguish on display makes it nearly impossible for even the most hardy viewer to say ‘well, I had a good time in that movie.’ While that may be sort of true, what they probably mean to say is that some of what they saw was enjoyable, but they couldn’t mean they actually enjoyed watching such suffering for as little payoff as they get in the end.
The Counselor fixates on a man (Fassbender’s character is simply known throughout as the Counselor, a description only slightly less blasé than Gosling’s in Drive) who gets in too deep with the wrong people, taking one job too many and becoming just a little too greedy. He’s meant to be a lawyer representing a variety of different, albeit all wayward clients, who insists he can protect them and get them what they want, though he’s really just in the game for the money for himself (and his soon-to-be-wife, the perpetually aroused Laura, played by Penelope Crúz). When the Counselor becomes involved with a multi-million-dollar drug deal and the deal goes awry, his world starts falling apart in unthinkably brutal ways.
The Counselor is approached by a shady, yet exquisitely dressed middleman representing the Mexican cartel, a man by the name of Westray (Brad Pitt), who presents him the opportunity to gain millions. McCarthy’s writing flusters both the audience and the characters in a scene intended to be pivotal for the rest of the proceedings, but it really just passes by as casually as death does here. This is aided by the fact that the discussions are absolutely loaded with metaphor; steeped in philosophy and ultimately add up to nothing more than “I wouldn’t do this if I were you,” just the kind of cautionary advice you fully expect the Counselor to ignore.
And he does.
We are treated to a whole slew of characters who would be compelling had the writing tried not to be so profound. The most compelling of which has to be Cameron Diaz, playing Reiner’s menacing girlfriend, Malkina. Diaz turns out to be the full embodiment of evil here, what with all those leopard print tattoos and her obsession with Reiner’s pet cheetahs and his Corvette (which she has sex with) — oh yeah, did I mention how misogynistic this movie is as well?
It could be to do with the fact that the director is trudging through some hellish waters here recently in the wake of his brother’s passing, and it may also be attributed to the general gloomy way in which McCarthy has consistently viewed the world. Arguing who is more responsible for the film’s tone coming across as bleak as it has could turn into an all-day affair, though. Point is, The Counselor takes an incredible cast and forces upon it some of the nastiest characterizations audiences have seen this side of Andrew Dominik’s morose political allegory.
Zoning out in this movie will not only be understandable but expected. That is, until you see someone’s carotid artery being sliced open in public, or their finger tips sliced off in the process of trying to remove the wire around their necks that’s causing this bloodletting. The viewer goes from being grossly under-stimulated by a wordy script to being just grossed out by scenes of graphic violence. Between the pretense and the pain, both which punctuate this script like stray bullet holes, the best thing that can be said of The Counselor is that its another extreme case of style-over-substance. The misuse of such a talented cast is what’s really difficult to get over. It’s as though the cast members blindly accepted the fact they would be speaking this legendary writer’s words, taking that reality for what it was regardless of the product his writing would ultimately shape.
Realizing this feels more enlightening than any of the lessons that are supposedly conveyed through such ugliness.
Recommendation: Very little of the film is enticing (except for Diaz’ back tattoos, of course). And when it’s not taking a mean-spirited approach to teaching the forever-sinning Counselor a lesson about being greedy, it’s boring. This movie is a failure on nearly every level, especially considering the talent on this set.
Running Time: 111 mins.
Quoted: “I can’t advise you, counselor.”
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