The Counselor – Ridley Scott – Directed by one of the largest names in cinema, featuring the first original screenplay from the novelist Cormac McCarthy and boasting an astounding, beyond star –studded cast, The Counselor somehow manages to eschew all its potential qualities to instead deliver an uncomfortably judged and flat oddity. Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous ‘Counselor’, a high powered lawyer who, against all warnings, becomes involved in a drug trafficking deal across the Mexican border. Javier Bardem plays Reiner, a bizarre, spiky haired criminal entrepreneur with a taste for tasteless clothes. Reiner is in love with Malkina, portrayed by Cameron Diaz as a coldly calculating and provocatively dressed femme fatale. Meanwhile Brad Pitt reprises his Ridley Scott connections with a cowboy themed nod to Thelma & Louise (1991), his only other collaboration with Scott. Caught in the fray of encroaching violence is the Counselor’s love interest, Laura: Penelope Cruz stifled into a role that requires her to be nothing more than beautiful.
Cruelly debased to an objective level of capital or commodity, only ever vessels of worth or dispensable bodies, people in The Counselor become unconvincing parodies of life. While it may be part of McCarthy’s vision to render these characters without any human warmth, the film lacks the intelligence or clarity to realise this artistically instead creating an impression of weak characterisation smugly – and wrongly - assured of its own meaning.
In a moment of frustrated boredom I even began to consider how the film unconsciously presents a sour allegory of Hollywood excess. Brad Pitt is reduced to re-visiting the cowboy- hunk template that originally found him recognition; the act is now a stale contrivance, emptied of youth his seductions become womanizing and effortless cool becomes unnecessary aviators worn in a too-dark bar. Michael Fassbender also seems to echo Pitt’s throwback Scott performance by evoking the cool, robotic façade he honed so immaculately for Prometheus. Only here, his unfeeling distance is no longer a sci-fi ploy, but seems a sad indictment of the unreal and vacuous male-lead. When he finally breaks down, too irreversibly submerged in a fate he unwittingly, long ago decided, it seems a discordant rupture of emotion – a display that elicits no natural sympathy or involvement, just a melancholy voyeurism. There is a scene in which Javier Bardem shows Fassbender their new bar/club (built by drug money – and to take care of cash flow) and very briefly Fassbender is shown staring at a black and white portrait of the actor Steve McQueen. One male hero observes a past icon of this heroic film tradition, a brief moment where you wonder – like the Counselor, too deeply lost in crime to know his own decisions, has Fassbender been propelled into a ‘star status’ with momentum enough to eclipse his own conscious decisions and acting intentions?
In the, admittedly indulgent, conjecture of my boredom the two female leads seemed similarly entwined with reflexive career critiques. Cameron Diaz is forced, yet again, to justify her acting presence through sexualised appeal – here contorted to a crazed extreme. In one memorably weird, but again strangely directed/handled scene, Bardem reflects that he has found out too much about women. By way of a begrudging explanation he recalls an incident where Malkina (Cameron Diaz) literally ‘fucked his car’. This involves Diaz removing her underwear and climbing up the car’s bonnet and on to the windscreen, on which she spreads her legs – sliding herself up and down to achieve a climax J.G. Ballard would have approved of. Rather than being turned on, Bardem is left in a mixture of horror and curiosity, describing the action (as seen from the car-seat, staring up into her exposed and sliding bottom half) like a ‘catfish mouth – a bottom feeder – how it sucks the side of the tank’ (or words to that effect)…before concluding ‘it was too…gynaecological’. Forced to suffer the manipulative wrath of the male gaze, Diaz is perhaps sexualized in film not through her own comfort or realistic sexuality but through pressures of a pornographic leering…one which here becomes grotesquely realised in its objectivity. While Cameron Diaz may have been originally discovered as a model, it seems increasingly uncomfortable to see her repeatedly cramped into such roles. Is this an unspoken contractual inevitability like Fassbender’s descent into suave male leads whose nuanced characterisation amounts to ‘handsome’ or ‘troubled’, or challengingly ‘handsome and troubled’? Perhaps the worst off is Penelope Cruz who we first encounter in a nauseatingly scripted, beneath the sheets affair with Fassbender’s over eager tongue. Not only is she devoid of any discernible character, being a fairly lazy counterpoint to Diaz’s oh so sinful libidinous empowerment, but she also becomes the expendable body, unceremoniously dumped as waste. Read in this light, the whole film becomes a far more interesting proposition, a waspish dissection of the film industry’s treatment of so-called ‘stars’. However, I am not for one second convinced that this is at any point an intended artistic objective. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the interpretive delirium - I just think to gift the film that level of attention is a disingenuous and misleading reading.
The overbearing visual impression was of a string of soulless car adverts, stitched together between awkwardly delivered, pseudo philosophic dialogue. While such language may work on the page, or fully supported by McCarthy’s authorial command, in Ridley Scott’s film it flounders into painfully hammy territory. Limp aphorisms trip alongside hammy wit (an example being Laura’s retort to being told her views are ‘cold’: ‘truth has no temperature’…I mean…really? Said without any humour. It sounds like a lost tagline for a hard-boiled, weather- based caper). While there is much in this film to contemplate for fans of McCarthy’s fiction (apparently, I’ve been told, posing a familiar brew of his themes-masculinity, globalisation, border-crossing etc.), as a film divorced from literary analysis it has very little to offer. With no suspense, a convoluted plot, misjudged casting, uncomfortable acting and little to inspire care or involvement in characters, The Counselor is an empty juggernaut of a film unable to will any of its constituent talents into flight. 4/10