When the names Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy are connected to a project, one can’t help but visualize the noir visual poetry of Scott’s Blade Runner and think of the harsh, grim storytelling excellence of Cormac McCarthy. Unfortunately their project, The Counselor, lacks all of the wonder that has gained them respect in the film industry.
(Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender)
The story, the first original screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, is meant to be didactic but instead comes off as a pedantic mess. It clomps where it should glide and leaves film-goers expecting more than they receive. The story is about a lawyer, The Counselor, who somehow (that is never explained), is brought into a drug deal of some kind (which is never clarified), to an extent that we aren’t privy to. There is also a secondary tier of characters who The Counselor knows, many of whom are also involved in the drug deal yet we never learn why or how they’re involved; not what I was expecting from a man heralded as the most important writer in the country. Add to the soggy script McCormack’s usual lack of understanding about women, his fascination with unnatural sex and predictable, but not particularly interesting violence. There are dozens of nonsense plot turns and character inconsistencies. Long amounts of time are spent in developing characters that never appear to have any significance in the film. Wise men abound; there’s a wise diamond expert, drug cartel lord, and a couple of un-identified wise men. Meanwhile, the only three women in the film are a whore, a personified animal and nun. There are a few other women to be seen; either dancing in bikinis or pouring coffee.
Whether it comes from the script or was added as an artistic touch from Scott, there is an infusion of grade school obvious symbolism throughout the film which is so blatantly obvious it borders on being offensive. The good guys live in completely white houses and the bad guys all drive black vehicles, that sort of thing. One of the many weaknesses of the film is the cartoon-like quality of the characters. It’s difficult to determine if they were written that way or if it was an artistic decision on the part of Scott. Either way the experiment was a failure. While the cartoon effect can be used deftly in film, in this picture it creates one more bruise on an all around achingly painful film.
Occasionally a disastrous script can still work on some level if there are exceptional performances. Unfortunately the two leads, Michael Fassbender and Cameron Diaz, are the weakest links in the picture. Michael Fassbender, as the good guy who made a bad choice, is meant to keep us engaged, even if we don’t understand his motives or his reactions. We should feel something with or for the character. His performance is so flat that even at his most sniveling, snot-flying crying moments the audience sits in a numbed daze.
Cameron Diaz is painfully inept for the lead role in which she is cast. She‘s supposed to be terrifying and mysterious, but instead comes off as not understanding the meaning of most of her lines as she recites them in a staccato tone reminiscent of a poor high school performance. It is such a clunky performance that she often emphasizes the wrong word in lines of dialog. As if her performance isn’t ludicrous enough she is also saddled with a ridiculous appearance. Her character is literally designed to look like a cheetah. Her hair is sculpted to resemble the cat and she is tattooed from behind the ear all the way down her back with a cheetah pattern. The film opens and ends with a hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-frying-pan obvious symbol that she is the hunter. We’re told repeatedly that she has “done everything,” and she says that she has “done very bad things” yet the only example we are given is a sophomoric, insulting, male erotic fantasy in the form of masturbation. The final scene of the film, which should be edifying and revelatory, instead is painfully predictable and full of the hunter symbolism which represses any message that could survive Diaz’s droll delivery.
Javier Bardem, with his crazy troll hair and unthinkable clothing combinations, is ironically the most human of all the characters and perhaps it’s due to his exceptional acting prowess. He is forlorn and powerful; confused and focused. The complexities that he brings to the part offer a welcome respite from the bland work by the leads.
Brad Pitt shows up in all of the advertising but his part is minute. He plays an urban cowboy of sorts; he dresses in outdated polyester cowboy garb and is smart enough to have a well planned exit strategy if things go wrong. We are supposed to believe that this same man would fall for an obvious female infiltrator and that he would order Heineken at a bar in El Paso, TX. His character would never order an import. Conflicting minor details like this compound the myriad of larger problems with the film.
Penelope Cruz’s beauty and talent is completely wasted. Her character is so one dimensional you feel as if you can see through her. She is stereo-typically the “wife” in the “wife” or “slut” scenario to the point that she wears a cross necklace, talks about going to church, is hesitant to talk dirty to her lover and doesn’t want to know the value of her diamond.
There have been no early reviews for the film. Many wanted to believe that it was to refrain from plot spoilers and maintain an air of mystery. The truth is much less interesting. It’s because this is a horrible film in every possible way.