With Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt. Written by Cormac McCarthy. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language. 117 minutes.
There has been some anticipation for THE COUNSELOR because it is the first original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy, whose novels The Road and No Country For Old Men have been turned into well-regarded movies. With a solid cast and stylish direction by Ridley Scott, it would seem to have everything going for it. Why, then, does it leave such a bad taste?
The story involves a lawyer known only (and somewhat pretentiously) as “Counselor” (Michael Fassbender). He’s a good lawyer who’s not above playing the angles. Getting ready to marry Laura (Penélope Cruz), a sweet and somewhat innocent woman who avoids the details of his life, the Counselor decides to cash in on a drug deal. His partner and client Reiner (Javier Bardem) is an effusive man who lives large. He has pet cheetahs and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) has cheetah spots tattooed on her back. In what will likely prove the movie’s most notorious scene, she has sex with his car. Facilitating the deal is Westray (Brad Pitt), who warns the Counselor to watch his back.
Naturally things go wrong and the body count piles up with not only multiple shootings, but two garrotings. It is especially ugly way to die. As things happen the Counselor tries to both set things right and make it clear to the drug lords he’s been dealing with that it’s not his fault. You can imagine how effective that’s going to be.
Some may call this a modern film noir but that would be mistaken. In noir a character who has been leading an ordinary life makes a fatal mistake, and once that’s done there is no escaping justice. Evil acts must be punished. In “The Counselor” the exact opposite happens. Characters who show the slightest bit of a positive attribute––being in love, being religious, being generous––meet gruesome ends. Most die, although one endures a living hell knowing time is running out. Who triumphs? Not to give away the plot, but the character who is the most amoral, selfish, and uncaring ends up rewarded and utterly unscathed. This is noir as if it was done by Ayn Rand: look out only for yourself.
The problem here is not in the performances. Fassbender continues to prove himself an actor to watch, as he does in the upcoming “12 Years a Slave.” Cruz, Bardem, and Pitt have roles that could have been single notes but they find ways to give their characters some texture and depth, with Bardem’s oh-so-wacky hairdo only the most obvious. As for Diaz, she has long been underrated as actress while dazzling audiences with her looks. She is, in fact, a superb actress, and gives what may be the film’s outstanding performance. It would be a shame if people only remember her moment of “auto-erotica.”
That said, “The Counselor” is a disappointment. Some might consider it an interesting failure because of the talent involved and the thought that has gone into it. Yet when you get to the end of the film, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the point of it all. It’s like getting a fortune cookie that reads, “Life is meaningless and then you die.” Whether you agree with the message or not, is that really what you go to the movies to hear?•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.