In his crime thriller No Country for Old Men, author Cormac McCarthy’s prose is taut, tense, and doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, his literary style doesn’t translate well to his script for The Counselor or Ridley Scott’s direction. The film is ostensibly in the same vein as an unforgiving, ruthless crime flick where greedy people get in over their heads, innocents get caught in the crossfire, and only the most ruthless thrive. This vibrancy fades in and out through the picture, but it’s usually overshadowed by forced, awkward monologues that cut the tension in favor indulgent pontification and dime store philosophy.
The Counselor (a character without a real name and played by Michael Fassbender) has decided to get married to his beautiful, innocent girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). However, for mysterious reasons, he’s decided to get greedy and cut in on a deal with his drug lord client, Reiner (Javier Bardem sporting a distracting hairdo). Even with Reiner’s cold, calculating girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) clearly plotting at the edges, the Counselor believes his drug deal for $20 million should be no problem, so naturally the deal falls apart and he gets in over his head.
Until everything goes to hell, the Counselor is cool, calm, and collected. Fassbender wears a big, shit-eating grin on his face as other characters dole out philosophy, anecdotes, and thinly veiled metaphors. When the Counselor goes to buy an engagement ring for Laura, the jeweler (Bruno Ganz) explains the details of the stone but the film may as well shout, “Of course he’s not talking about the finer points of jewelry! He’s relaying subtext and foreshadowing! LISTEN UP.” The movie does dance around the notion of a Counselor as a priest for the avaricious as he listens to various confessions or diatribes, but he’s mostly just a handsome sounding board.
Sometimes what the characters have to say is worth hearing, but it’s mostly dependent on the actor to push past the strained dialogue. Brad Pitt, who plays a savvy middleman in the drug deal, lets pearls of wisdom and anecdotes about snuff films languidly roll of his tongue. He finds a way to breathe life into a shallow character, but most of his co-stars fail to match him. Fassbender’s tremendous range is wasted as the Counselor quickly goes from confident to a sniveling mess, and even though another character points out the Counselor’s thin-skin, it still makes for a bland arc until the he’s pushed to the brink.
The most bizarre performance from Diaz, and it highlights the worst aspects of the script and the direction. While Scott deserves some credit for trying to make Diaz play against type, the character is too much of a cartoon to be taken seriously. Malkina owns cheetahs and her tattoos look like cheetah spots. It’s fine that the film doesn’t try to hide her predatory nature, but the exaggerated nature of her character, Reiner’s hairstyle, and the rest of the picture creates a collection of caricatures operating inside what’s presented as an unforgiving moral landscape.
Scott seems confused at the direction he should take the film. Sometimes he wants to play to the insanity and will set up crazy moments like a decapitation wire, throw in a disturbing device called a “bolito”, and give new meaning to the word “catfish”. But then he’ll step back and try to provide a counterbalance where characters can go on awkward monologues without any interference. And with this freedom, the words lack any naturalism. The speaker finishes talking and we expect the listener to respond, “So what’s that from?”
The Counselor is somehow both over-the-top and muted. It’s a movie where everyone down to a Juarez bartender has kernels of “wisdom”, but rarely does anyone saying something worthwhile or insightful. “The truth has no temperature” Malkina tells Reiner early in the movie. It’s a line that at first listen seems deep and thoughtful, but then you realize it’s utter bullshit. Some truths are frigid and uncaring, and other truths can send someone into a fiery rage. The line “the truth has no temperature” is either a gussied up tautology (“it is what it is”) or the equally vapid “everything is relative” (except that statement…and that one…and that one…to infinity). For all of its theatrics, The Counselor is mostly hollow words in a hollow world.