I feel bad for liking The Counselor, the latest effort from Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy. It’s something you should never say as a critic, or even as a person, because you should never be ashamed for what you like, no matter what the movie is. And yet, when I watched The Counselor I knew I was in the presence of a special kind of film. It’s a complete mess from top to bottom in terms of storytelling and sometimes insidious themes and attitudes, and yet, it’s one of the most endlessly fascinating pieces of work this year. It’s made by a great director who has no clue what to do with his material other than film it quite unwisely word for word, and written by a man who it looks like no one thought to reign in because he won a Pulitzer. It’s almost like Scott and McCarthy are playing a game to see who can one-up the other, and it’s more interesting to think about than most of what ended up on screen. It’s hard to think of a film that will be more openly divisive between critics, and yet no one in the general public would see or even necessarily enjoy all that much. I have no idea who this movie is aimed at pleasing or entertaining, but I’m kind of glad it exists. I think.
In typical McCarthy fashion, the story within The Counselor is purposefully opaque, but simple to deduce. A nameless lawyer (Michael Fassbender) looks to get in on a $21 million drug deal along the El Paso/Juarez border to make some extra money. He partners with an over the top rich guy (Javier Bardem) who’s dating a woman obsessed with leopards and sex (Cameron Diaz) and an old school pro (Brad Pitt) who seems to know every out in case things go south. Things eventually do go wrong, and the counsellor is fingered by the supplying cartel as being an accomplice in the now missing shipment, putting himself, everyone around him, and his new fiancée (Penelope Cruz) in danger.
A familiarity with all of McCarthy’s works, mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, and his use of language is an absolute prerequisite here. Seeing the film without ever having read a word of the man’s work would lead to the viewer either getting frustrated or laughing the whole thing off the screen. Everyone speaks in seemingly tangential monologues like this were Ulysses by way of Scarface or Savages. No one actually sounds like a real human being, nor are they supposed to. They are written and sound like the voices playing out in McCarthy’s head, and they’re being read aloud by excellent actors that give the lines the proper amount of gravitas and poetry that they are written with.
The pitch is obsidian black and wilfully misanthropic. Everyone here is a terrible, utterly unrelatable human being, but that’s kind of the point. McCarthy and Scott nail the concept that everyone involved in a multi-million dollar drug deal wouldn’t be sympathetic. The cast has a blast with this, some of them going over the top to play up the grotesquery of it all (Bardem and Diaz), while others opt to playing things decidedly cooler and more methodical (Pitt, Cruz). Even the supporting cast is populated with work from great professionals like Bruno Ganz, John Leguizamo, Rosie Perez, and Ruben Blades who show up for single scenes to deliver a speech before never popping up again. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
As for Fassbender’s leading man, he makes the best out of a character who still remains largely a cipher despite being front and centre for most of the proceedings. He’s playing more than the script or Scott is requiring him to play because it seems like he wasn’t given all that much to work with beyond the film’s opening sequence and a scene where he agrees to bail Perez’s kid out of jail (the real incident that sets off his deal going sour). It’s a great performance that might just be the one thing edging this film into the positive.
But then, there’s all that’s wrong with the film, and while the botches are glaring, they at least ensure the film isn’t boring to watch. First and foremost, Scott is entirely the wrong person to be making this film. Either that, or at some point he stopped caring about the film he was making and just let the actors and cinematographer do whatever they wanted. Those elements make the film great, but there’s no authorial stamp on the film other than McCarthy’s, and the writer runs roughshod over the proceedings. Not once does Scott try to change or hone the prose here into something usable. It seems almost like Scott assured himself and everyone around him that he was essentially just going to film poetry readings from the actors around gorgeously shot backdrops, and if that was his aim, then he accomplished it. But why not just let McCarthy just direct his own material? It’s sadly a film that could have been made by anyone.
The one thing that Scott does better than McCarthy, though, is handling the actual dynamics of the drug trade. In a similar pitfall suffered by Oliver Stone in Savages – another craftsman who like McCarthy sees the “war on drugs” as an unwinnable joke – things feel arbitrary at a writing stage, but Scott finds ways around this by nailing some of the film’s more tangential moments (like Leguizamo explaining why a corpse from Columbia ended up in the US or the aftermath of a brutal beheading) that other directors would have ignored. Here it’s the exact opposite. It’s all Scott seems interested in, and even then he seems all too content to crib the style and colour palate of the much better McCarthy crime adaptation No Country for Old Men.
McCarthy’s screenplay, however purposefully sleazy and challenging it might be, still remains one of the most uncomfortably misogynistic things ever created. Either the author thought he was instilling his stream of consciousness styled Jungian subtext or someone really messed this guy’s head up and he’s working out his own demons and hateful feelings towards women in front of an audience. Cruz is a withering, constantly frightened, wide eyed creature who uncomfortably has to fumble around in the film’s first sequence, a clumsily written bit of greasy fantasy where she has to beg her lover to “touch her down there.” Given how good of a writer McCarthy is (and how awkward Scott even is at filming this sequence, showing both actors for far too long as a writing mass wrapped in sheets), one would think his writing about sexuality would be more interesting than something that probably wouldn’t be published in a Letters to Penthouse column.
That’s nothing compared to the batshit crazy sociopath Diaz gets to play. She gets to sport a leopard print tattoo down her back and constantly humblebrags about her sex life, while secretly plotting against everyone. She has two scenes that offer up nothing except to underline how horny she is: one in a church where she all but begs the priest to ask her about her sex life (something Cruz’s character declines to talk about in an earlier scene), and in a sequence that will be talked about in infamy for decades to come, she straddles and has sex with the windshield of Bardem’s sportscar. It’s a scene so incredibly wrong for any movie, let alone this one, that one has to admire not only Diaz’s bravery to go along with it, but also Bardem’s line delivery when he actually has to try and explain this happenstance to the counsellor. Towards the end, Diaz gets to subvert her character’s own shortcomings by simply acting tougher than the film allowed her to be at the outset, but it’s too little too late. McCarthy can’t even make the women an intricate enough part of his movie, and since he clearly doesn’t care for them, he writes them as nasty and mean spiritedly as possible.
When Scott first received The Counselor, it was in the form of a novella and it seems like nothing was changed. It’s very much a film that had to have come out exactly as it was written on the page with no deviation, and that’s never a healthy thing for any production to do. Even films where “not a word was changed” from the script at least have something to make them special. That’s not the case here, but it’s impossible to say that I wasn’t invested in seeing just where the heck the film was headed. It’s not always awful. Some of it comes with flashes of true brilliance and craft. But the parts that don’t work oddly make the film more interesting to talk about and puzzle over in spite of their wrongheadedness. It’s a film that I like, but I am hesitant to recommend. Just know that I like it for what it is, and if you see it based on that and you think it sucks or is without merit, I’m sorry.