When the trailer for The Counselor first hit the Internet, I was stoked. All the ingredients were there: a top Hollywood director in Ridley Scott, a script penned by the challenging Cormac McCarthy and a strong cast put it near the top of my “most anticipated” list. But then the reviews came flooding in a barrage of hate. Slow, senseless and impossible to understand were some of the adjectives thrown my way. It was like being told Santa Claus isn’t just a fake. He’s a bit of an asshole too.
My reaction to the criticism was simple: what did you expect? Anybody who’s ever read a McCarthy novel knows he writes in riddles. Themes are centered on hard to stomach personal morality, the prose is beautifully thick and nothing comes easy. Breezy beach reading he isn’t. Even his film adaptations (No Country For Old Men, The Road) are stoic, thought provoking affairs. But those were adaptations by experienced filmmakers. This is an original screenplay, the first from the author. Sadly, the poor reviews are not entirely off the mark. Weighed down by lengthy dialogue, bland direction and one of the worst performances of the year, The Counselor should have become a novel without ever reaching the silver screen.
In the lead, Michael Fassbender plays the never named Counselor, a lawyer who represents both the highs and lows of society. He has a lovely girlfriend (Penelope Cruz), a connected best bud (Javier Bardem) and a bad ass Bentley showcased so often, you would think the movie was financed by Volkswagen. Despite his fantastic life, the Counselor has a daring side and decides to assist his high balling friend in a cocaine transfer. Naturally things go awry and after a series of disconnected events, Fassbender finds himself living in fear. Turns out, drug cartels do not have a sense of humor.
Right off the bat, this film isn’t slow. It’s aimless and rambling thanks to heavy, clunky dialogue. Lesson to blossoming screen writers: just because you can write it, doesn’t mean people can speak it. The conversations may have read beautifully on the page but when spoken by actual actors, it sounds like a 1:00 AM literature reading. When a movie is 80% conversation, this is problematic.
Like any good McCarthy book, the prose is used to cement theme and while it’s obvious the script was designed to do so, the plot and pacing suffer greatly. It doesn’t help the underlying ideas are smashed into the audience with a giant Thor hammer. It an exhausting experience, especially when nothing moves the plot along, leaving the audience stuck in emotional neutral. The Counselor spends the majority of its running time reciting ideas like a college thesis, not giving us any insight into motivations or character reasoning. It also should be noted, McCarthy books are generally tough reading, sometimes requiring some backtracking to get it all straight. Unfortunately you can’t flip back a few pages in a theatrical movie experience.
As bad as the script is, director Ridley Scott didn’t do the movie any favors. Filmed like a bad TV movie, the bland, washed out cinematography has no flair or visual pop to help keep audiences interested. The acting is also suspect. Fassbender over compensates when things get emotional, Bardem looks lost half the time and Cameron Diaz, sporting a badly painted cheetah print tattoo, is wooden, soulless and downright barren in her portrayal of Malkina, the film’s femme fatale. With a plastic visage, Diaz tries hard to be cold and ruthless but comes off as intense as a TI-86 calculator. Even the editing is suspect. Several times during the screening I found myself asking, “Did Ridley Scott do more than one take of this scene?” On more than one occasion, an actor blatantly flubs a line or stumbles on a word. All I needed was Ed Wood saying, “Cut! Print! Perfect!” every time a blatant error went unchecked.
A lesson in how not to write a screenplay, The Counselor is easily one my biggest letdowns this year. With the brilliant mind of Cormac McCarthy and the pedigree of Ridley Scott, this could have been an Oscar contender. Instead, the film will probably be out of theaters by the time you read this review. Some entertaining blood splatter and a lesson in exotic cars aside, the first screenplay by the legendary author of Blood Meridian will most likely be his last. Stick to the novels, Cormac. Your work is better read on the page than recited on screen.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born, New York based and Austin bound, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of media. He currently writes bi-monthly reviews for Pantheon Magazine and his micro fiction story, K, was recently accepted for publication in Solarcide’s flash fiction compilation, Flash Me. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. Check out more of his work atwww.thesurrealityproject.com.