Some movies are intentionally bad. Some are unintentionally bad. The Counselor is both.
I think I was a bit unfair in supplying kyra and our friend Smalls with my initial and too pithy review—I paraphrased Roger Ebert’s legendary review of Death to Smoochy in intimating that it takes people of real talent to make something so unsatisfying. It is true that The Counselor was made by a considerably accomplished coterie—written by no less than my favorite living novelist, Cormac McCarthy; directed by the man who helmed Alien and Blade Runner; and starring a cast—Fassbender, Pitt, Cruz, Diaz, Bardem—that has earned the several awards and nominations that they have accumulated over the years even if no human should have the right to the astonishingly good looks they possess. (Well, Bardem at least is allowed some patently insane sartorial flair to mitigate this.) And it is also true that some scenes are enjoyable. This is Cormac McCarthy, we’re talking about here, and god damn it if he can’t have some gory nihilistic fun on the screen instead of on the page. It’s here where I was a little too strident in my initial show of disregard for The Counselor. When McCarthy’s words are allowed to shine through—”shine” not being a verb you’d associate with his writing, but stay with me—in moments of quiet despair, the movie succeeds. But The Counselor is more noise than signal and too often smothers what would be the suffocating timbre of McCarthy’s script and his pulpy inclinations. McCarthy penned a quintessential B movie underlined by his grim outlook, and you can be sure that The Counselor will march to its own beat and spare its characters no quarter as comically as possible, but you can also be sure that no one else in the film will commit to McCarthy’s salaciously dirty vision. There’s a lot of trash in The Counselor, but I wished it all would have been of the stinkiest shit imaginable.
From where I sat, most of The Counselor‘s problems were attributable to the misbegotten marriage of McCarthy’s script with its director, Ridley Scott.* Mostly, Scott is way too clean, way too sleek for McCarthy’s spare and muddy prose. To posit why I don’t think Scott’s stylistic choices match the material, it’s important to remember the seedy world in which these characters traffic and inhabit. The titular character, played by Fassbender—his name is only “The Counselor,” because Cormac McCarthy—is lawyer to Reiner (Bardem), and predictably gets caught in a deal gone wrong, for which somebody is thirsting for his head, for Reiner’s head, and for the head of anybody who may have conceivably had anything to do. (This includes Pitt, who plays a bagman, and The Counselor’s innocent wife, Cruz, among others. And when I say their head, I mean sometimes literally, their head.) For someone whose profession involves the disposition of advice, The Counselor spends most scenes being counseled as to how completely impossible it will be to extricate himself from his predicament. The film’s best sequence, if not necessarily its most memorable, is such a scene, in which Ruben Blades coolly and calmly explains to The Counselor, who has traveled south of the border, the extent of how fucked he is and, as is typical for McCarthy, why The Counselor’s incompetence and the bloody retribution sought against him represent the natural state of affairs. The film could have—should have—consisted only of scenes much like this one, where the beads of perspiration dripping down The Counselor’s face evoke an air of grimy anarchic exotica, punctuated by the detached brutality that threatens him outside of the door. But the film isn’t so hot and dirty because, frankly, Ridley Scott just doesn’t make movies this way anymore.
*It’s my understanding from the Grantland pop culture podcasts that the script had sort of existed in the ether for a while before Scott, who was given free reign to make something this crazy after the financial success of Prometheus, jumped at the opportunity.
Even Scott’s two best films, the aforementioned Blade Runner and Alien, echoes the spareness that so characterizes McCarthy’s work, even those movies are a little too clean to make a perfect match. The pure white walls of the Nostromo‘s sick bay contrasts starkly with the crewmembers’ blood splattered on them, thereby accentuating Alien‘s horror, but McCarthy’s work isn’t so much interested in contrast, because the gore, the cravenness of the characters, and the dingy Western locales are all of a piece. The Counselor and Reiner may have some money, but the Bentleys and Ferraris they drive are a little out of place for the material.
Compounding this problem is that The Counselor is pulpy even for McCarthy. It is a movie in which Diaz’s character fucks a car—you read that right. She fucks a car. Yet Scott is not ready to abandon the heavily stylized action to which he has returned so frequently of late—the result is an aesthetic that does not accurately reflect the film’s setting. Think of how Steven Soderbergh captured the Benicio del Toro third of Traffic, or even of how Scott himself staged some of the battle scenes in Black Hawk Down, all grainy and pixelated? That would have been more fitting for The Counselor. Instead, I fear, Scott confused some modern touches—the tools of the trade, those used for much of the slashing in the film, are metallic cables—for the need to design a sleek thriller. Even the killings feel a little too easy and smooth; even if one roadside killing was well-constructed, I would have preferred a sloppier and gruesome death. (For movies with this sensibility, it’s best to heed The Princess Bride: To the pain, not the death.) This may be, to repeat, a movie where a woman fucks a car, but that shouldn’t provide Scott with the imprimatur to make a car commercial and give his film such a digital look. It’s one thing to write characters who drive these expensive cars, but another to not undo the cars’ polished look with the photographic tools at a filmmaker’s disposal. This sleekness is a more conservative way of symbolizing the characters’ depravity. The film could have more boldly stripped its film of some of that luster to capture such degradation.
And if the true standout of The Counselor is McCarthy’s script, I wish I could report that these outstanding actors had more to do with that juicy language. Fassbender is confined mostly to bracing looks of helplessness, Cruz to look sexy and appear concerned, Pitt to show up as needed and tell Fassbender he’s in trouble. Bardem nails his one monologue—he narrates for The Counselor his witnessing of Diaz’s car-humping—and pairs it with a hilarious look of astonishment in the ensuing flashback. Diaz is the movie’s most preposterous character, and therefore gets to bite down on the film’s most scenery-chewing dialogue (other than the Blades scene referenced above and an early scene with Bruno Ganz as a diamond salesman), which is a bit unfortunate: I was laughing at her delivery more often than at the absurdity that clung to her character more tightly than her leopard-print clothes, her spread-eagle on a Ferrari dashboard something of an exception, especially compared to listening to her attempt to confess before a priest or describe how watching a cheetah run around in the wild ignited some sexual energy inside of her. There had to have been a better way to deliver McCarthy’s script to the screen, or at least spread some of the love around.
It’s kind of a shame that this movie risks becoming remembered for one scene—the one I’ve already referenced too many times. But that one scene could have been the cornerstone for an awesomely bad movie. What I didn’t understand were the attempts to class it up, in a manner that made this grim, pathetic underworld cool. With Diaz’s scene at the center, The Counselor should have been a bizarre and violent dramatization of human devolution. It was bizarre, and it was violent, but the film traded in dramatization for stylization.