THE COUNSELOR presents a tough case with star witnesses, yet a seeming slam-dunk resulted in a mistrial when the jury hung up over handling of tainted evidence. It managed to cover fees when it went to court in 2013 with the public ($71,000,000 gross on a $25,000,000 layout), but was cited for contempt by members of the bar (35% approval from critic types).
If you sniff that opening statement as officious gobbledygook, you should hear the script prosecute itself: “The truth has no temperature” (bespoke in stone by Cameron Diaz). Objection! Objection sustained and overruled in this case, as the plea bargain absolves cast, director and production team, but finds the screenwriter guilty on multiple counts.
“The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass.” (yeah, whatever…)
‘Counselor’, a smooth criminal defense attorney working in El Paso (Michael Fassbender, sleek) steps up his shady game into a pitch-dark region he’s not equipped to fathom. For opaque reasons, he aligns to do a “one-time” twenty-mil coke shipment with professional drug dealers he’s represented (professional with a certain, sudden shelf life). Partners are flamboyant, high-living ‘Reiner’ (Javier Bardem, playful), low-key realist ‘Westray’ (Brad Pitt, jaded/bemused mode ) and carnality-incarnate ‘Malkina’ (Diaz, carnivore), who has pet cheetahs and an unnatural quotient of venomous kink. ‘Laura’, Counselor’s sweet, adoring fiancée (Penélope Cruz, disarming) is completely innocent, a lamb—and we know what happens to lambs.
“It is our faintness of heart that has driven us to the edge of ruin.”
The A-list actors assure camera magnetism and precise, astute delivery. The director is Ridley Scott, 75 with the energy of 30, so you know it moves like a falcon and looks good-as-they-get. Cinematographer hefe Dariusz Wolski drinks in sun-baked Spanish locations passing as El Paso & Juarez. Paula Thomas designed the fifteen killer outfits for Diaz’ feline fatale (Janty Yates, Scott’s go-to clothes genie since Gladiator, got the overall Costume Designer credit). A snappy salute goes to the pulsating soundtrack from Daniel Pemberton. Besides the star quintet, the cast is peppered with solid supporting players. The best, in brief turns, Bruno Ganz and Rosie Perez (quietly frightening). Cheetahs are always cool.
Then, there is…the script. The legendary Cormac McCarthy veers from his doom-drenched novels into a first-time go as screenwriter. ‘Legendary’ we’re always told, as if it inarguably must be so, just because. Debating the merits of his books themes and his writing style is for some other blog trog, but he opened himself up to a can of free-fire zone whupass with the convoluted conversations he inflicted on actors and audiences in this doozy. Motivation, backstory, behavior, logic and likelihood are absent as mercy from a sicario; portent and allusion–to-what, exactly?—hang in every exchange; the attempted replications of jokey anecdotes are abysmal. The chatter may look ‘deep’ and ‘challenging’ on the page during rehearsal, requiring commitment from performers. Listening to it on screen in place of actual human-speak requires not spilling tequila on the pause button when someone uses “We announce to the darkness that we will not be made less by the brevity of our lives” in a sentence and the listener acts like that’s run-of-the-mill lunch lingo. The fine actors make it work as best they can. Hard to say who gets the worst mouthfuls but poor Ruben Blades’ sum-up soliloquy is heavier than the atmosphere of Neptune.
Ridley delivers some of the gore McCarthy promises, and there are a couple of bravura, suitably novel touches to the grislier bits. The presumably most heinous mayhem does occur off-screen, at least, which is a good thing, as the planted idea is nightmarish enough. Instant what-next? notoriety—and lasting YouTube-hits ranking—is achieved with the scene where Cameron Diaz has sex with a Ferrari. Not in one–-with one. Gee, Dad, when I grow up I want to be a windshield…*
Critics in the main reviled it, and most audience takes reflected confusion and distaste. It is weird for sure, but you may find it as watchable and compelling as it is exasperating and flimsy. Palpable dread permeates the 117 minutes/138 director’s cut, with Richard Cabral, Natalie Dormer, Edgar Ramirez, Goran Višnjic, Toby Kebbell, Sam Spruell, John Leguizamo and Dean Norris.
* I like Diaz, and her performance in this, but watching the DVD extras, I had to spit-take guffaw when she gushed about how her psychopath character was so “liberating”. You wonder why the right-wing quarter-wits hate Hollywood? Her “brave” car-nal knowledge of Bardem’s yellow sports car recalls the pride stirred by Joaquin Phoenix’s courageous humping of a sand castle in The Master. Well, besides Carmen’s hood ornamounting, you also get an idea of what it may be like to cruise-control Penélope in this movie, up close and persona (Fassbender, you lucky bastard), so maybe we’re being too hasty.
As for the flick in sum, it reminds me of items like, say, Blue Velvet, where you’re simultaneously impressed & repulsed, wondering if you’re seeing something actually risky or are just being jerked. Perhaps both. A Ridley riddle? McCarthy muddle? Too early to know if it will come to apply to this movie, but we appreciate the comment on it from Danny Leigh of the program BBC One: “Movie history is littered with films that we all sneered at and we all laughed at and we all thought were terrible and the critics hated them and no-one went to see them, and then 40 years later they fetch up on programmes like this with everyone saying ‘what a masterpiece!‘”