Motivated by greed and status, The Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) starts working with infamous drug lord Reiner (Javier Bardem) and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) as a way of paying for his wedding to girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). Things soon spiral out of control however and the lawyer-turned-criminal soon finds himself in over his head.
There were key moments in Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor where I caught myself leaning towards the screen, determined not to miss a shimmering, steely frame of Dariusz Wolski’s camera work or a single syllable of Cormac McCarthy’s lithe script. Such a response would suggest that I was compelled by the shady doings of the A-plus-plus cast. All strive determinedly to realise the story of a nameless, arrogant lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who risks all that is precious to him (mostly Penelope Cruz’s Laura, his love) to be part of a get-rich-quick, one-off cocaine smuggling swindle.
a train wreck of a film
But I was not on the edge of my seat because I was thrilled by any element of the film. Rather, it was out of sheer bewilderment that this gaggle of talents had forged one of the most pretentious, infuriating and nonsensical studio works in some time. The Counsellor is a train wreck of a film, the likes of which I haven’t seen in quite some time.
Films that are so front-loaded with talent often only get financing when a swag of Oscars and box-office hits are attached to the team. In addition to Scott and McCarthy (penning his first stand-alone screenplay), key players include Javier Bardem as a flamboyant nightclub owner Jiminy Cricket-ing our protagonist, Brad Pitt as an ice-cold middle man, and Cameron Diaz as a venomous femme fatale who likes watching her pet cheetahs kill jack-rabbits and is seen masturbating against a windshield to prove her worth as a crime kingpin’s main squeeze.
The actors latch onto McCarthy’s words and deliver long, laborious to-and-fros about how their place in the scheme of things ensures that the machine runs smoothly. Of course, all the players are so fractured, and under constant threat of immediate retribution that not a single personality or 'profound’ word rings true. These are B-movie stereotypes tarted up in fine duds but they’re generally all posturing fools unable to rise above a bad movie concept (barring maybe Cruz, though her scant screen-time and pouty, doe-eyed ingenuousness suggests Scott and McCarthy had no real time for her anyway.) Walk-on parts and throwaway expository scenes are given unwarranted weight by the presence of name players like Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz and John Leguizamo.
With 2003’s Matchstick Men his last dramatically fulfilling film, Ridley Scott must now surely be considered a spent force. He has directed one lumbering, shallow spectacle after another (Kingdom Heaven, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood, Prometheus) with only the gently sweet and, I think, vastly underrated A Good Year worth the time.
The Counsellor is filled with the frustrating contradictions that define Scott’s career; it’s a small film about minor players living behind thin facades, yet the director wants to infuse it with soulful, grandiose importance. (His pairing with McCarthy is a mistake, that is clear.) Scott has always struggled to find what is most engaging about his narratives, instead settling for the visual over the emotional. His best films have been the immersive, sensorial ones that bolster simple genre trappings: Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, Black Hawk Down.
Like Fassbender’s counsellor, Scott is playing with dark-hearted individuals of whom he has no real understanding. From the outset, he was on a path to a beating and his audience takes the brunt of it.