Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, Natalie Dormer, Rosie Perez, Richard Cabral, Sam Spruell
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Run Time: 118 mins
Why do people swim with sharks? After all, sharks have a long-standing reputation as fearsome creatures, nature’s perfect predator, and the self-preservation instinct in all of us dictates that we stay as far away from them as possible. Perhaps some have nerves of steel, others wish to face their fears; some are drawn to the allure of living on the edge, others convinced that the circumstances are controlled and safe and that sharks are largely misunderstood.
Here, our “swimmer” is the Counselor of the title (Fassbender), otherwise unnamed. He seems to have everything: he’s handsome, wears lots of Armani and is very much in love with his girlfriend Laura (Cruz). He has, however, run into money troubles and decides to enter into an illicit drug deal with eccentric kingpin Reiner (Bardem). Within Reiner’s circle are his vampy love Malkina (Diaz) and middleman Westray (Pitt). He is also the court-appointed lawyer to convict Ruth (Perez), mother of a high-ranking cartel figure (Cabral). Of course, things go awry, as things must, the Counselor’s existence crumbling apart as the days go by, all he holds dear at stake.
The Counselor is directed by Ridley Scott, from a script by nigh-legendary novelist Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men, The Road, All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. The Counselor is the veteran writer’s first screenplay, and what an unfortunate clunker this is. The dialogue consists almost exclusively of endless strings of platitudes, opaque threats and nauseating anecdotes of violence and sex. Cringe-worthy, faux-portentous lines like “I think the truth has no temperature” crop up repeatedly. The shootouts and a car chase seem like very perfunctory insertions, as if they’re there only to fulfill some unwritten requirement about a thriller film involving the drug trade.
Yes, Ridley Scott has earned his reputation as a well-regarded director and does stage some shocking moments of graphic violence fairly effectively. There’s a bit with a motorcycle and a trip wire, and a scene involving the deployment of a “bolito”, a nasty motorised garrotte. The problem is, the material isn’t very cinematic and it seems even he finds it hard to make two people talking to each other look interesting or dynamic.
In addition to the pedigree behind the camera, the film’s mostly solid cast also contributes to how ultimately disappointing it is. Seeing all those names on the poster should whet the appetite and admittedly, these actors aren’t bad. Michael Fassbender’s Counselor seems to be caught in a moral dilemma and he does have some moments of gut-wrenching emotion – but we barely get to know the character at all and he’s a somewhat smug guy whose troubles are of his own making, making it difficult to sympathise with him in spite of Fassbender’s best efforts. He was a lot more interesting as the android David in Scott’s previous film Prometheus.
Real-life husband and wife Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are in this, though they do not share the screen together. Both are alumni of Cormac McCarthy film adaptations; Bardem having starred in No Country For Old Men and Cruz in All the Pretty Horses. Bardem appears to be having fun with the role, flamboyant and equal parts affable and shady and carrying hints of his Bond villain Silva from last year’s Skyfall. Cruz’s Laura is very much “the girlfriend”, doing nothing actually of note through the whole film beyond a roll in the hay with the Counselor and some poolside flirting with Malkina. Brad Pitt in his supporting role will make moviegoers go “oh hey, it’s Brad Pitt in a supporting role” and that’s about it.
Of course, there’s one performer who absolutely pulls the whole thing down with her every time she’s on screen: Cameron Diaz. The name conjures up images of ditzy blonde characters clapping their hands and squealing in delight. She is far from the first person who comes to mind when one thinks “femme fatale”, and she amply demonstrates how inept she is with stilted line delivery and laughable posturing. In fact, she attempted to affect a Barbadian accent, but test audiences found it so distracting that she was forced to re-dub all her dialogue in post-production. Angelina Jolie was attached to the role for a time and there’s no question that she would have been a better fit. Looking at Malkina’s character poster, it seems the poster designer’s brief was “make Cameron Diaz look as much like Angelina Jolie as possible.” We can tell the difference, we really can. Even looking past Diaz’s performance, the character is written as a man-eating, wicked wildcat, followed everywhere by two pet cheetahs and sporting a cheetah tattoo. It’s a caricature that beggars belief.
The Counselor comes off as one of those films that imagines itself to be far cleverer than it actually is, appearing daring and edgy but ultimately hollow, unpalatable and unsatisfying. Its top-tier cast are given pages of drivel to spout; a pity since Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay was an eagerly-anticipated work. More alienating and off-putting than thrilling and absorbing, The Counselor flounders even under Scott’s direction and will leave audiences drowning in a miasma of highfalutin excess.
SUMMARY: The Counselor lays down the law, crushing its illustrious cast, prolific writer and celebrated director flat.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars
Originally written for F*** Magazine