The Counsellor (Ridley Scott – USA/UK) 117 minutes
Depending on who you are, The Counsellor’s ultimate selling point is either its five big-name stars, rather annoyingly billed surname-only on trailers and posters, its director, Ridley Scott, or it is Cormac McCarthy, contributing his first motion picture screenplay at the age of 80 (his only previous screenwriting effort was a 1976 teleplay for PBS). Though McCarthy is reportedly working on three new novels, he has published nothing since 2005’s The Road and his fans will most likely scramble to consume anything that flows from his pen at this point. The Counsellor deals with the Mexican cartels’ terrifying rise to prominence in the past two decades, something which has given McCarthy a new form of violence to grapple with in his fiction, as in No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of that book was for the most part successful and the experience seems to have given McCarthy a taste for the big screen.
The Counsellor of the title is a handsome upwardly-mobile El Paso lawyer played by Michael Fassbender (a man who seems to be the go-to man to incarnate onscreen luxury these days) referred to only as ‘Counsellor’ throughout. He is talked into going in on a drug deal by Reiner, a restaurateur client of his (Javier Bardem) and a seemingly more worldly middleman Westrea (Brad Pitt). The Counsellor seems to not really understand what he is getting himself in for, which in turn suggests he doesn’t really follow the news. Early on in the film, when all is still sweetness and light, he proposes to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), having gone to Amsterdam to buy an expensive rock off a diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz).
Things begin to go awry when a client of Counsellor’s, whom he has taken on only because the man’s mother – another client – requested it, and who is working for the cartel, is ambushed and killed. The cartel’s default reaction is a Dantean punishment for all involved, all of which has been foretold in allusions in conversation by Reiner and Westrea to the cartel’s preferred methods of exaction.
The horrific sun-drenched Gothic mode is perfect material for McCarthy but his screenplay is the first place where the film goes wrong. He favours long wordy dialogue, which might be evocative on the page but is clunky and disorienting in the mouths of actors. It certainly doesn’t help either that characters that appear not to be non-native English speakers, such as Reiner and a Mexican crime boss played by Rubén Blades, utter words such as ‘heretofore’ in a strong accent. A trimming of the dialogic fat would have produced a more robust screenplay without any loss in tone. Though the universes of this film and Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth novel 2666 meet only tangentially, the Chilean writer, even in a 1000-page novel, is far more succinct and persuasive a portrayer of a hellish milieu than McCarthy is.
The characterisation is also slipshod – Reiner is a silly cliché of a coked-up high-liver, a refugee from early-80s Wonderland Avenue. The women are even worse (McCarthy has often been accused of showing little or no interest in female characters in his books). Penélope Cruz’s Laura is a ridiculous caricature of a Latina Catholic, a woman who frets about sinning while in bed. Cameron Diaz suffers the greatest indignity as Malkina, Reiner’s sexually voracious girlfriend/wealth manager. While casting Diaz as a trashy vamp is in one respect an inspired idea, her character’s whorish amorality is the fruit of some seriously inept writing. It also tries to graft a film noir trope onto a world that has little or nothing in common with the traditional noir modes and devices. It is like Becky Sharp popping up in a film about the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Several scenes involving her are also cringeworthy in the extreme, such as one where she tries to seduce the more homely Laura and another where she pulls her panties off and pleasures herself on the windscreen of Reiner’s sports car (as if this weren’t unsubtle enough, Reiner is narrating the whole thing in voiceover at the same time).
The performances are mostly askew, though the actors can hardly be blamed too much given the mangled grotesque they are expected to work with. Fassbender and Bardem, both far too good for this sort of nonsense, do their best but it is Pitt’s wisecracking, sarsaparilla wide boy Westrea that is the best turn in the film. He is the only one who manages to match the tone of his character and most the better scenes in the film involve him. The Counsellor also suffers by comparison to recent television drama. A previous Ridley Scott film, American Gangster, had already looked creaky and semi-articulate next to The Wire when it came out in 2008. His latest effort seems like a pointless after-thought in the wake of Breaking Bad, which, even in its more comic moments, conveyed far more forcefully the menace of the cartels. Scott has long been turning out films far below the level of early work, but the recent rise of TV drama has made him, like much else in Hollywood drama, look particularly irrelevant. Intelligent adult audiences are catered to far more assiduously by TV these days than by Hollywood. Ridley Scott has an irremediably passé air about him, he is VHS times print media times Jerry Bruckheimer. When Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad) pops up at one point as a buyer for the cartel shipment, it feels like Scott is having a masochistically cruel pop at his own underwhelming work.