Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott team up … for one of the year’s worst movies.
Early in The Counselor, it becomes apparent that the film — about Michael Fassbender’s lawyer character’s descent into the drug trade — is going to only refer to Fassbender’s character by his formal title. This unnecessary fillip seems annoying and dumb — and it is — but it should also be noted that The Counselor is not just annoying and dumb, it is fractally annoying and dumb. Every tiny part of it is bad, yes, but they’re also bad in specific ways that are mirrored in the bigger strokes and beats of the film. The movie combines the visual look of a Vanity Fair ad spread with an impotent and bloody cynicism — Why, I had no idea the world of drug dealing was venal and violent. The Counselor bases its grisly, gratuitous feel with a script so crippled by holes, deletions, things left unexplained and absent transitions, watching it feels like hitting ‘Play All’ on the selection of deleted scenes offered by the DVD of some other film that actually makes sense.
Fassbender’s lawyer, in love with Penelope Cruz, reaches out to a friend and drug dealer (Javier Bardem) and offers to front the money for Colombian cocaine smuggled across the border from Juarez to Texas. Bardem has a big house, a dark-eyed and dark-hearted Cameron Diaz on his arm and the connections to make Fassbender rich. He also has two cheetahs on a leash at his house, which should be a signal to Fassbender to walk away from the jump, but he does not. He does not walk away after Bardem explains a beloved and bloody cartel murder method with a self-winding noose called a bolita — see also ‘Chekhov’s gun’ — because he truly needs money, for reasons we’re never told.
When the product goes amiss, though — in a series of scenes that are utterly undecipherable in terms of who is doing what, and why, and on who’s behalf — Fassbender, Bardem and associate Brad Pitt face both the wrath of the higher-ups in the deal and betrayal. You could cut all the nonsense from The Counselor, like CGI shots of cheetahs hunting rabbits across the Texas plains, actors arriving only to spout Existentialism 101 aphorisms and describe torture-murder to Fassbender, and Diaz getting herself off on a Ferrari’s windshield. Then, you might have room for dramatic elements like how these characters know each other, or any sense of how much time passes from opening to finale. But instead Ridley Scott wallows in images unconnected from any story, plot or theme. (This is the sort of film that makes you realize that Scott is, at this late point, just Michael Bay with a classy British accent. Just as Prometheus required the dumbest astronauts of all time to make its ‘script’ work, this film requires the dumbest people in the drug trade. )
The performances are hard to discuss, as they don’t exist. Bardem’s a sybarite with goofy hair, Fassbender a glib idiot with a shaky accent, Cruz a object to be adored and defiled, Diaz smeared with tattoos, bronzer and make-up, bereft only of a mustache to twirl while she laughs diabolically. (Diaz is supposed to be an omnivorous, predatory femme fatale, but all her scenes are as sexy as the snap sound a rubber glove makes as it’s tugged onto the bloated arm of a sweaty, fumbling gynecologist.) The Counselor is all cars and stars and meaninglessness — or, to paraphrase the song of the moment, bloodstains, bespoke suits and cheetahs on a jeweled leash. Painful as it is to say, McCarthy’s screenplay is a brutal botch; scenes that, in print, would dazzle us with wordplay simply slide off-screen under the weight of their own pretention.
At one point, Fassbender’s licking his chops in anticipation of profit in a conversation with Pitt about his load of cocaine that he never gets to sell: “So if the drug war ends, this all dries up …” He’s talking about the money. When he said it, I found myself wishing the drug war would end, too. Not just because of the waste of billions of American dollars and tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths in Mexico (60,000-100,000 since 2006) that serve solely to drive prices up and ensure profit and pain. I was hoping that day might come mostly because if we did end the drug war, we’d never have to sit through a pretty, painfully obvious, been-there-murdered-that story of drug dealing like this ever again.