The Counselor, a Ridley Scott film featuring an original script from Cormac McCarthy, shares many similarities with the greatest adaptation of McCarthy’s work, the Coen Brothers take on No Country For Old Men. It’s a Texas crime film about the horrors of the cartel featuring a relatively decent man in over his head with a great cast that is unwilling to hold the audience’s hand or give them the type of pay-offs genre fans have come to expect. It even has a nifty, original murder device in the grisly “bolo” where No Country had the gnarly cattle bolt gun. Is it as good as No Country? Not a chance. That said, it does have balls and many rewards for the viewer who doesn’t mind some challenge with his thrills. And besides, No Country is arguably one of the true blue GREAT AMERICAN MOVIES of the last thirty years – no movie should be expected to be that rad.
It follows our titular counselor played by Michael Fassbender as he gets into the heroin trafficking business and quickly becomes a scapegoat for the unseen cartel when the heroin shipment goes missing before he has a chance to even see the shit. From there many of his associates end up dead and his life is ruined, the film never even hinting that shit is going to end remotely well for our hero (again, shades of No Country).
The cast is great, with Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem all holding our attention something fierce, though the ladies that round out the cast are iffier. Penelope Cruz (a great actress and for the Nerd’s money the hottest woman in the world) is given nothing to do outside of being Fassbender’s innocent love interest and way too much faith is put in Cameron Diaz to pull of the type of femme fatale stylings she has to bring to her role as big shot Javier Bardem’s conniving lover. The fact that the final speech of the film is delivered ever-so poorly by Diaz before we cut to black really hurts because, you know, it’s our final impression of the picture and leaves a truly sour taste.
But the fault is not all Diaz’s alone. McCarthy’s talky script is full of philosophical dialogues and monologues, some of which are fantastic and others just plain awkward and forced. His script also skimps on humor with only Brad Pitt and some wry lines from Fassbender ever really bringing the dark jokes such a film needs. Though there are indeed some nasty murders, there are few suspense sequences or shootouts, with a key murder even taking place entirely off-screen. And the first half of the film drags painfully, with too much time spent establishing the romance between Cruz and Fassbender and setting up the danger involved in Fassbender entering Bardem and Pitt’s world while still not really explaining exactly what his role in the trafficking will be.
For such a talky film very little is ever explained, and though some audiences may have a hard time with that, I appreciated the filmmakers attempt to let us figure out the story for ourselves. Many revelations and plot points are simply visually implied and left for the viewer to decipher themselves such moments managing to not be *so* opaque that careful viewers won’t be able to follow it. McCarthy also avoids as much as he can giving the viewer the traditional arc or setpieces such a premise implies for which I was also grateful.
But the smartness of the writing and visual storytelling do not wholly make up for the fact that the movie is occasionally dry and just plain awkward in its shoehorning in of themes through long stretches of dialogue when they could just tell me a story, not give me a beautiful, intelligently crafted paragraph that would make much more sense in the pages of one of McCarthy’s books. It’s a somewhat wonky film, but like last year’s Killing Them Softly, I’m thinking this one might play better a while from now on rewatch. There’s plenty here for me to recommend the film but overall it is not a total success, though hopefully time will give me more fondness for The Counselor.