The Counselor is Too Messy for Its Own Good.
By Kristin Battestella
In hopes of permanently financing his jet setting lifestyle and indulging his new fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), the eponymous Michael Fassbender turns to drug dealing businessman Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) to land the drug deal of all drug deals. Despite his conspirators’ warnings on how far in over his head he is, criminal coincidences with The Counselor’s current case Ruth (Rosie Perez), her Mexican cartel biker son The Green Hornet, and interference from Reiner’s wildcat girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) thrust The Counselor and all those around him into a dangerous, deadly game of cartel retaliation…
I finally settled in for a night with the theatrical cut of The Counselor, but this 2013 modern noir thriller from acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) and director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) is muddled with much too much trite and obviousness vaguely disguised as cerebral commentary. From the slow, awkward sex scene and chop shop drug action interspersed with the opening credits to the plodding pace, undynamic metaphors, and waxing philosophical characters, nothing much happens in The Counselor until the last forty minutes. No character back stories and motivations are revealed in the heavy handed script; the threats from the anonymous drug cartel come too late and pull the rug out from under the danger when people are not so unexpectedly killed. A critical kidnapping that should have been the genesis of the piece happens far too late in The Counselor, and the overlong, seemingly backward story doesn’t have much going for it beyond the disconnected and redundant dialogue vignettes. I can forgive the undercooked drug deal particulars – it’s refreshing that any action heist elements are nearly a beside the point MacGuffin. In fact, we don’t need any drug action scenes at all if The Counselor is meant to be a psychological interplay and character piece. Unfortunately, the point of view among the characters is all over the place, and anonymous thefts, deaths, and shootouts from characters named “The Wireman,” “The Young Man,” “The Blonde,” “The Priest,” “The Buyer,” “The Diamond Dealer,” and “The Chauffer” contribute to the unrefined, confusing flab.
In a novel, the reader trusts that all between the layers will be revealed, but the surprisingly mundane style of The Counselor doesn’t guarantee anything for the audience. The viewer is given no emotional cause to continue, and even something as simple as a phone conversation accentuates this distance. These talks could be an excuse to play with the filmmaking style, editing, or visual cohesion – change the design for each caller or make each a linear uniformity. Instead, some phone calls are intercut, others are unheard on one end, and some pretentious soliloquies are listened to by those in the next room. Is this a quibble or an uneven media treatment indicative of the un-thought out cinematic design of The Counselor? Why is this stunning cast literally phoning in these stilted skits? This ensemble could sit in an empty room and read the dictionary for a wild time, yet their collective wow goes unrealized. Instead of hearing “Counselor” every few minutes, Fassbender’s lawyer should have no title. Make his thinking he’s the shit an intriguing subtly ala Layer Cake – just because he doesn’t know he’s crossed the line doesn’t mean the audience is so unaware. For all this wordiness, The Counselor doesn’t say very much. Religion versus sex? The drug business is a religion? Love is a beheading? These potential examinations, supposed shock values, and crime dangers don’t register with the audience because we aren’t given all the pieces until after the fact, if at all. Leaving things for the viewer to figure out is one thing, but plot holes and having your story take place at the wrong point in time are not highbrow. I didn’t expect The Counselor to be a standard, violent, action caper. I expected high drama and emotional depth but spent more time pausing, analyzing who was who, and wondering why I was wasting my time, for the answer to who was going to come out on top was so pathetically obvious compared to any emotional journey The Counselor or the audience is supposed to have.
Speaking of that lawyer who’s called by his courtroom courtesy minute to minute, Michael Fassbender’s incompetent Counselor is apparent from the moment he doesn’t know which fancy diamond is which. If he were swindled on the gem, would he have even known? This over his head symbolism is given in the first fifteen minutes of a film that spends the rest of its run time repeatedly reiterating how in over his head The Counselor is. His head is under the covers, his head is between Laura’s legs, he presses a client about hats; this dude harbors a rainy cloud over his parade and everyone sees it but him. We get it. Why not show how this pedestrian lawyer came to love the high life? Let’s see him cross that unlawful line and greedy point instead of telling us nothing we don’t already know. We see his legalese job but once so the viewer can’t appreciate any shady underbelly contrast or allure. How does he know these crooks? Why are these drug dealers warning him so kindly if they pressed him to get so involved? The Counselor is a risky, unlikeable, untrustworthy protagonist who balks at his court appointed client. He wants to prove his power over his case, but in that swagger he ignores obvious clues to his undoing – like a speeding motorcyclist who was caught carrying $12,000. We don’t need to know his name. However, without any details beyond what a piss poor, unable to read people lawyer he is, The Counselor’s supposedly important relationship with Laura becomes unbelievable, insincere, and suspect. He didn’t mind putting her at risk when he was actively doing something nefarious, yet The Counselor grows scared once the cartel is coming after him because of Shakespearean coincidence? The criminal turns in which The Counselor finds himself will not surprise today’s audiences, and combined with the cliché outcome for this couple, there isn’t much else to deduce beyond the irony of him not knowing he’s in the proverbial horror movie patheticness.
The Counselor is the first real misstep from the Oscar nominated Fassbender (Shame, Twelve Years A Slave, X-Men: Days of Future Past). With so shoddy a script, it’s as if The Counselor is supposed to get by on Fassbender’s seemingly charming portrayal of an overly asinine version of himself. He should be able to carry a gritty, despairing crime thriller on his own, but for a talented actor who usually slips so seamlessly into his character’s skin, Fassbender looks strangely uncomfortable and out of his element here – just like his character. His voice is slightly different, an in and out British or American accent changed from scene to scene regardless of jet setting location or his Bar association. We hardly spend enough time with Fassbender to enjoy the tailored Armani suits, strut, and cropped hair. He looks cool, but he’s trying too hard to be cool and over compensates with his chiseled ponder as The Counselor listens or ignores as needed. Is the point of The Counselor this hollow or weak register? Why would the viewer care if this shallow fool gets his comeuppance with no reflection on what has happened? The Sopranos would have dealt with this eponymous screw up by proxy a lot sooner! Will this whole episode break The Counselor, force him to live with what has happened or have him fall on his Roman sword? Did he really expect to get away with this escapade? The audience knows this is all his fault, but again, the story before and after the movie would have been more compelling to see. Fassbender gives his stunning best efforts in his final few scenes, but it’s simply too little too late to save The Counselor.
Not only is it obvious she is pregnant despite the usual film trickery, but how is it possible to make Oscar winner Penelop Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona) so seemingly juvenile, dense, and un-hot? The opening scene with Fassbender is not just not sexy, but laughable. “Touch me down there?” Seriously? For so verbose a script claiming to be so solemn and edgy, The Counselor tries to be scandalous without using any dirty words. Laura’s chemistry with The Counselor feels fake with a poor, high school-esque marriage proposal. If this relationship allegedly brings them both such purity and glee, then why does he think he must obtain wealth and go illegal for her? Yet again, the audience has no indication of her background or demand for such criminal desperation. Did the sweet, innocent, church going Laura escape from a cartel lifestyle? Is she poor? How did they meet? What’s this angel doing at the spa with the vixen Malkina ignorant how much her diamond ring cost? Laura is apparently made deliberately clueless of any crookedness and unheard during a ridiculously chaste phone sex scene, yet she knows how to quickly form a get out of Dodge plan when things hit the fan. Any emotional feel in The Counselor comes through Laura, but her motivation for being in this one sided, noticeably unhealthy relationship goes unexplained. Is she written as that dumb? Because Laura doesn’t get a free pass for being so duped, and the high price for her innocence is pitifully evident through the course of the film, again taking any shock and awe away from the viewer.
Likewise, Cruz’s real life husband and fellow Oscar winner Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) is used and abused in what feels like a farce or parody performance. Why the wild hair? Why the esoteric over-analysis on how money makes women make the world go round? Sometimes this deal is good, but more often than not such loon for poon will come back to bite you in the ass? Who didn’t know this or already learned it the hard way? Reiner didn’t get his education from that car sex scene? Why prod The Counselor to get involved only to warn him he’s deathly in deep? Surely with that flashy style and party pad no one thinks Reiner is a legitimate businessman, but everyone in The Counselor is this same kind of talkative, philosophical friend with no real cause for such wisdom. Reiner’s talk of being scared by yet in love with Malkina practically gives the whole picture away – if it wasn’t already beaten over the audience’s head before the gynecology gone awry car encounter. He asks The Counselor what he’s going to do yet he keeps telling him what he should do and neither sees what’s right in front of them as clear as that sticky windshield. Why didn’t we see all this development action then? Why isn’t The Counselor showing us anything now? We meet all the characters at the wrong point in time. What happened before? What happens next? If you’re going to tell the viewer what we already know instead of showing us the genesis and the pathos of this tragedy, then why are we watching?
I know Cameron Diaz (Being John Malkovich, There’s Something About Mary) has Cuban ancestry and proper ethnic flavor is one of the few things The Counselor gets right. Unfortunately, Malkina speaks in riddles just to screw with people, her Spanish quips feel off kilter, and that iffy accent completes the edgy, trying too hard to be bad girl via Barbados miss. Why the cheetahs, cat print tattoos and clothes? One or two suggestions, sure, but too many caged, cat, wild, wildcat, pussy, and insatiable primal references beat the viewer over the head again in The Counselor. Why does Malkina want to corrupt Laura? How did they become friends? The forced, latent lesbian, supposedly sexy spa scene is not just awkward, but pointless – the viewer never sees these women together before or after the salon. Just because their men don’t see it, The Counselor doesn’t need these two women to briefly interact for the viewer to connect the saint and sinner contrast. Malkina’s embarrassing trip to the confessional tells us she’s bad, and she certainly says it enough, too. Attempts at either deflection or overselling her naughty – like the car scene and Reiner’s whipped nature – aren’t intimidating, tantalizing, or funny. Malkina dicks men over for her own gain, and The Counselor does everything but play Hall & Oats’ “Maneater” in the background. Diaz does her best, but the she’s so bad is laid on so over the top that any turnabout or surprise is compromised. Is something woman hating being said in all these men missing the catfish, too gynecological, hunter chewing up her prey ala vagina dente implications? Even if the audience somehow misses all these evident cat clues, are we supposed to be empowered by this femme fatale victory at the expense of the saintly woman cliché? Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, sex, drugs, and rock n roll shrugs The Counselor.
The Pitt et al
Though it takes a half hour for Brad Pitt to appear, at least he gets to keep his own voice as Westray – because he’s Brad Pitt. Of course, more symbolism is hammered home in his white suit and cowboy hat style, and it becomes increasingly frustrating to watch The Counselor when yet another character is basically introduced to tell Mr. Titular the same thing as everyone else in similar cryptic, overlong soliloquy fashion. Honestly, it isn’t foreshadowing if you are in public talking about snuff films before a little old lady waitress. The moment these things are mentioned, they must occur. What’s a bolito you say? Why here it is, ba donk a donk. What little suspense in connecting the dots The Counselor gives is continually compromised by its lack of an emotional crux, and Westray is largely an unnecessary information dump of round about, Rube Goldberg, butterfly on a wheel giveaways. We only see Pitt in a handful of scenes, and with a few tweaks, this middleman character could have been removed without much further damage to the picture. Again, in written fiction, this sort of go to for the scoop financial source can come and go, but not in film. Likewise, budding it girl Natalie Dormer (The Tudors, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games) had one of her deleted scenes released for The Counselor’s marketing campaign – but it was better than what survived the film proper! How is a character introduced with fifteen minutes left, unknowingly caught up in the heavy, and then given a change of heart so fast? Rosie Perez (Fearless, White Men Can’t Jump) is also treated to this ‘insert someone here’ vibe as a stereotypically sassy Latina inmate with a troublesome biker kid who offers The Counselor a bj to square up on a fine. It’s actually a bit depressing to see so many talented and acclaimed players used and abused in The Counselor. Most of the ensemble has one or two scenes each and half of them have no fricking names! Too Wong Foo? I’d like to order John Leguizamo for the final twenty minutes please. Thanks! ER? Goran Visnjic for the finale. Stat!
Early Dutch hints, fine Spanish flavor, and Mexico moods add a sense of global place for The Counselor – sunsets and vistas contrast with ancient, wet Amsterdam concrete to establish the high and low. Yet once again, there is an inconsistency in the style of The Counselor. The Spanish isn’t always translated and some of the slang will confuse those who don’t know the language. The interior scenes are dark, the framing for the photography during drug conversations is deliberately shadowed, and the digital color gradient continues the redundant parallels by accentuating the purity of white statues or sheets. Scenes with Laura – always in a white coat or pale clothing – are bright and well lit, but the daytime outdoor locales are also overly rich and saturated in color to the point of feeling flat. In what could be such a cultured, vibrant, and layered landscape, The Counselor looks like just any other film. Is this meant to be an abstract criminal limbo underlying so close to the real world? Then why not add more haze, visual illusion? The few gruesome but tame scenes don’t highlight the drug underworld as they should, and any parallel imagery is textbook apparent rather than dynamic. I want to like original film rather than ad nauseam remakes and sequels, but The Counselor needed another run through, someone to step back and realize where the flabby patterns and un-snappy editing impede the cinematic mandates. Brief flashbacks serve no purpose, and what should be a visually titillating and mentally stimulating picture ends up with neither. I hate being harsh – I feel my own reviewing is ironic in its redundancy – but the best part of The Counselor may have been Michael Fassbender’s winking pause at the poster of the classic Steve McQueen. Otherwise, The Counselor wanders aimlessly like that poor, overly metaphoric cheetah left to roam in the desert.
I expected to see the Unrated Extended Cut of The Counselor, but the Netflix rental blu-ray is only a bare bones Theatrical edition with much needed subtitles. At first, I had to compare the run times and check the listings of extended and additional scenes not in my viewing to assure that this long and dry two hours was indeed the shorter cinematic release. All the times today’s cut up television or a 90-minute film needed just a bit more time, explanation, and character development, yet The Counselor’s pedestrian pace, characters, and look proves why film going attention spans can no longer endure a picture near two hours or more. Not only are viewers over accustomed to spoon-fed popcorn shallow, but to swing the pendulum here toward muddled, thinly drawn esoteric rants seems cruel. This film won’t make a lot of sense to unschooled audiences yet insults the intelligence of the refining viewer. Maybe you have to be able to laugh with The Counselor, see new commentaries on your tenth viewing amid a drinking game? Truly one does need to see this picture more than once to clear up any initial confusions, but the despair, pitiless people, and stupid mistakes here aren’t anything we haven’t seen before The Counselor. This criminal material has been done better with lesser onscreen and off clout – the first-rate Essex Boys comes to mind – making this movie more of a big disappointment than anything else. The bleak here is so phoned in, divisive of itself, and superficial; the talking heads use star power to veil the obviously thin B grade plot, clearly unmotivated characters, mediocre drug angles, and undercooked story. Were there obligated commitments to appear or back door contracts coercing these A-listers to take part? Familiarity between the cast and crew and their previous collaborations alone should have made The Counselor enjoyable. Did the tragic passing of Ridley Scott’s brother and fellow director Tony Scott cloud the production? I dare say I’d love to see this same cast and team again with more worthy meat and film focus.
Ultimately, the takes too long obvious, pedestaled and vilified women, disconnected dialogue, apathetic players, and premature story of The Counselor just tries too darn hard. One can read this kind of slow conversation and page turning analysis, but the distant cartel dangerous never registers onscreen thanks to the witnessing of superior crime pictures and little new wisdoms in the pretentious here. Although fans of the cast will enjoying their preferred guys and gals in their respective scene chewing snippets, The Counselor never stop hitting the audience over the head with wordy we already know. Indeed, movie lovers can find better heist pictures, crime dramas, or action films that give the audience what it wants, serves the plot, and their characters’ storytelling needs without so much… ostentatious absurdity.