Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Natalie Dormer, Dean Norris
Running time: 117 minutes
Don't be fooled by the pretty faces in the commercials for The Counselor—this is an ugly, ugly movie.
Not that the faces of megastars like Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem are muddied up at all. They're as attractive as ever (even Bardem, with hair that makes it look like he spent a good long time getting to know an electrical socket, biblically). But no stylist alive could compete with first-time screenwriter, and longtime revered novelist, Cormac McCarthy's aggressively cynical script, directed with a flair for cold punishment by the esteemed Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator). The Counselor live to deconstruct traditional Hollywood beauty. Its superstar cast members, Scott's fluid camerawork, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski's lush, scenic visuals all cower before McCarthy's bleak worldview. As one character puts it, "I've seen it all. It's shit."
Like nearly everyone in The Counselor, Bardem's Reiner—a wealthy nightclub owner and the film's resident king of swag—is mostly reprehensible. His views on women are the most troubling, bordering on full-blown misogyny ("The truth about women is you can do anything to them except bore them.") but occasionally reeled in by his affection for his main squeeze, Malkina, a bisexual force of uber-gusto who's written without any shred of subtlety and played with fun iciness by Diaz. Malkina describes herself as "a hunter," like a cheetah, so, naturally, she sports cheetah-print tattoos and owns two pet cheetahs (duh). The Counselor finds Cormac McCarthy laying his themes on thicker than spoiled marmalade.
And so The Counselor isn't an easy movie to like. In addition to its disreputable characters, including the film's protagonist, enigmatically named The Counselor and played with blandness by the usually explosive Fassbender, McCarthy's screenplay has little to offer other than the pervasive and familiar crime-doesn't-pay and you-reap-what-you-sew ideals seen in countless other crime thrillers of its type, only, here, handled with McCarthy's brand of talky negativity.
The Counselor largely consists of overlong monologues revolving around how royally screwed Fassbender's character is, the result of his foolish decision to acquire more cash through delving into the world of Juarez/Texas drug trafficking. Rather than simply tell The Counselor that he's fucked, an ominous ringleader called "El Jefe" (Ruben Blades) spends a solid five minutes on the phone laying into The Counselor's bad decisions in ways Merriam Webster's connoisseurs will cream themselves over. Instead of telling The Counselor that the malevolent cartel members have zero remorse, his money-providing middleman, Westray (Pitt), informs him, "They're a pragmatic lot. They've heard of coincidences; they've just never seen one." Even random, perfunctory one-scene characters get to speak unnaturally, like a Mexican bartender who rationalizes death's lack of meaning to The Counselor with, "My family's dead—I'm the one who has no meaning." Malkina, for her part, says things like, "I don't think truth has a temperature," in lieu of saying, "The truth hurts."
Herein lie the back-and-forth feelings I experienced watching The Counselor. For every "truth doesn't have a temperature" line that feels heavy-handed, there are just as many McCarthyisms that land with maximum impact. The recipient of the most winning quotes is Bardem. In the film's funniest scene, he recounts the time Malkina humps his sports-car's windshield all the way to an orgasm in front his eyes by describing her you-know-what pressed against the glass as "one of those catfish things, one of the bottom-feeders you see go up the side of the fish tank." The whole experience, he says, was "too gynecological."
The scene itself, however, is too brilliant to take for granted. It's one of many moments of greatness in The Counselor that puts Scott's film into that all-too-rare category of motion pictures: a movie that you want to despise yet can't help but love. So what if much of the dialogue moves beyond groan-worthy preachiness and lands right smack into infuriation? McCarthy offsets some of the least nuanced dialogue of his entire career with wonderfully ridiculous sequences like Diaz crotch-banging the car. The Counselor also kills people in amazingly inventive and brutal ways, all of which are foreshadowed to extremes Chekov would've said "bruh bruh" to and then flashed a thumbs up.
After the unhappiest ending you're ever likely to see in a major Hollywood movie co-starring Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz, I was left rubbing my head. I was trying to soothe my brain through a number of sensations, including the confusion over McCarthy's convoluted narrative and headaches derived from listening to unlikable characters engagen in pretension warfare. Mostly, though, I couldn't parcel through my reactions. Like, is The Counselor a work of nihilistic genius? Or an epic miscalculation by a venerable dream team of splashy Hollywood names? Or a mixture of both?
The next morning, my decision was final: I love The Counselor for the same reasons my brain's telling me I don't. Glossy Hollywood movies don't get much messier than this one. To its credit, though, they also don't get much more fascinating. Even if its box office tallies are unimpressive this weekend (which seems to be the case), The Counselor is destined to provoke heated debates long after its theatrical debut. You can't make an uninviting film in which a car gets Cameron Diaz to climax without that being the case.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)