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The Counselor Review: A Film In Need Of Counsel
The Counselor is going to end up something of an oddity in Ridley Scott’s filmography, marred as it is to great American author Cormac McCarthy’s first feature script, which ignores some fundamentals of screenwriting.
It’s often said a page of script should have as much white as possible, creating a nice clean page for the reader; sparse except for what is only essential. Every writer has their own style though, so I imagine the script for The Counselor had wall to wall text; endless lines of dialogue pontificating about the perils of being a corrupt counselor. McCarthy has brought his prose sensibility into the world of film, as opposed to adapting it as the Coens did masterfully with No Country For Old Men.
The premise follows Michael Fassbender’s titular Counselor, in a relationship with his girlfriend, played by Penélope Cruz, and who rubs shoulders with Javier Bardem’s shady character and his own girlfriend Malkina, played by Cameron Diaz. When Mr. Counselor (seriously, he has no name and everyone calls him Counselor at least twenty times each) expresses interest to take part in a drug deal by way of Brad Pitt’s character, it inevitably goes wrong, especially when Malkina decides to interfere behind the scenes. Fassbender’s Counselor unwittingly becomes a target of a drug cartel who swoop over all like an unforgiving torrent of water.
The film doesn’t even get past ten minutes before warning signs rear their head. The problem is that every scene drags on too long, with little of interest occurring in them. You can almost sense the camera feel impatient with proceedings, wanting to move or have characters move; to have whatever they’re discussing be acted out instead of discussed. The run time is filled with long monologues that go round in circles before getting to the point.
By the time we meet the Counselor in this story, everything interesting dramatically has seemingly happened already. When the film begins, we’re simply observing the aftermath of his choices. It’s a strange and truncated way to tell a story. How did the Counselor get into a relationship with Bardem’s extravagant fan of cheetahs and parties? When did Fassbender decide he wanted to flirt with danger? What prompted him down this dangerous path? We’ll never know, beyond inferring shallow signs. Immediate wealth is a simple motivation, but watching the character wrestle with making the choice is probably more interesting than watching him pay the price.
The problems are entirely at script level, and so with McCarthy, but also with Scott for signing off on it. At this point in his career, he should know a good script when he reads one, and one that needs a few more rewrites. But with Prometheus, he seems to have started a worrying trend. No film can be fixed in post-production, nailing the script before cameras start filming is essential.
It’s hard to care about any of the characters or their fates. They are armchair philosophers outlining their world-views to each other, and when we join Fassbender’s Counselor, he’s already in bed with criminals, so we don’t see any conflict about whether he should get into bed with them or not. There is nothing but inevitable tragedy looming over his head as he finds himself up to his neck in trouble once Cameron Diaz begins causing mayhem behind the scenes.
The actors themselves are all brilliant A-listers brushing shoulders, so there is some fun to be had in their performances. Bardem is not a typical criminal, draping himself around the environment like a hapless man bemused by his own lifestyle, which is a nice change from bloodthirsty alpha males. Diaz relishes her role and is the highlight of the film, frankly. She has sex with a car. Literally. I don’t know if there is a word for this behaviour, but I’d like to make one up: carbumping.
“Hey, what did you do last night?”
“Oh, just did a bit of carbumping.”
There is a perpetually weird preoccupation with sex and women in the film that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the premise or the film’s themes. It seems to merely be there to add colour to the story, and is wholly distracting. I suppose having Diaz as a formidable antagonist was the cause for focusing on sex and gender in many characters’ dialogue, to juxtapose gender stereotypes and her own unique character. But it’s a tenuous reason for occupying so much screentime to unsubtle interludes of sexuality run rampant.
To give you an idea of why this film is a tiring experience for viewers, things only really get interesting an hour in, which is traditionally when a character reaches their lowest point. The point of no return. Until then, The Counselor is all preamble and foreboding and lots of monologues. There’s barely any drive, momentum or tangible escalation.
Cruz doesn’t really contribute to the story other than being the Counselor’s weak point, and frankly borders on the ‘woman in a refrigerator’ trope, with the threat of cartel violence hovering over her. For all the talent in this film, there is a defeating sensation that it’s all for naught, regardless of the gut-wrenching climax. The gruesome feeling soon fades away until the only thing you remember about the film is the carbumping.
The Counselor is not a great film, and yet it has excellent acting, and Scott’s direction is assured as usual. No matter the varying quality of his recent films, as a director he hasn’t missed a step. All aspects of the production are on their A game, but the script makes it all a moot point.
A film can be philosophical as much as it wants, but it has to recognise the genre sandbox it’s playing in, to either conform or subvert it. The Counselor ignores it entirely for its own machinations. A shame that this wasn’t the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner, but writers get better the more they write. After seeking some counsel, McCarthy’s second screenplay may embrace cinematic traditions, and leave literary pretensions behind.