Counselor, The (2013): Ridley Scott’s Crime Tale, Starring Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt

On paper, the combination of Oscar-nominee Ridley Scott and Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, as writer-director team, and an illustrious cast, headed by Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt, promises a good and interesting movie.

In actuality, however, The Counselor is a major artistic disappointment, bringing out the worst in writer McCarthy, who makes his screenwriting debut, and Scott as a director.  Sleazy, detached, and shapeless, The Counselor fails to involve on any level.  The comparison with McCarthy’s previous filmic adaptation, No Country for Old Men, which he did not script, makes the shortcomings all the more noticeable.  That 2007 movie was well written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (it’s their best film to date), deservedly winning the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.

As helmed by Scott, The Counselor contains some powerful set-pieces, but the movie is disjointed and there is no decent or ordinary character to root for.

Despite the high-profile cast, the film is bound to be a commercial failure when it opens nation-wide this weekend.

The acclaimed author’s nihilistic vision, verbal wit, and dark humor, all attributes of the 2007 Oscar winner No Country for Old Men, are only sporadically present in the movie.

At the center of this Faustian tale, set in Texas, is respected lawyer (Michael Fassbender), who makes one mistake.  It’s a one-time dalliance with an illegal drug business deal, which spirals out of control, leading to lethal consequences, in which half of the lead players end up brutally dead.

Let me explain: Fassbender plays an unnamed defense lawyer.   Everyone in the film simply refers to him as Counselor.  If he is meant to be an Everyman, a representative of all lawyers, then casting Fassbender, an extremely handsome and powerful actor, who’s anything but ordinary, might have been a mistake.

The counselor has been  recently engaged to the beautiful Laura (Penelope Cruz), who doesn’t know anything about his dubious work and shady dealings.  Unfortunately, most of the scenes between them are conducted on the phone, as the counselor is always on the road, and so we never get to understand the nature of their love or attraction.  It doesn’t help that Laura, who is the only real innocent individual in the group, gets killed early on in a parking lot.

When he’s in need of a cash infusion, he decides to go in on a seemingly lucrative onetime drug-trafficking deal with two shady associates: a nightclub owner named Reiner (Javier Bardem) and a cartel liaison named Westray (Brad Pitt).

Meant as a cautionary morality tale about mistakenly tempting fate, the tale’s message is clear: Do not get involved in something shady that you might later regret.  But McCarthy is a better novelist than screenwriter, and the conversations often assume a pseudo-psychological, pseudo-existential tone.  Characters appear and reappear without following any narrative or dramatic logic.

At the end, you are left with a bad taste, having watched a cold film noir in color, a feature that pretends to say something deep about uncontrollable greed and unpredictable fate.

One of the film’s main shortcomings is its varied tone.  As director, Scott cannot decide if he wants the film to be cool and ironic or campy and entertaining.  This is most evident in a scene in which Cameron Diaz, one of the sexiest actresses working in Hollywood today, climbs upon a car and f—ks it—literally–spreading her legs on the windshield, while Javier Bardem is watching from the driver seat.  The scene lacks any eroticism and it goes on forever before ending abruptly.

It’s noteworthy that of the McCarthy’s novels that were transferred to the big screen, only No Country for Old men was effective and successful.  The rest, including The Road and All The Pretty Horses, were both artistic and commercial flops.

The depiction of this particular criminal underworld is precise but it’s deja vu.  Most recently, we have seen similar tales in slightly better and more engaging pictures, such as Killing Them Softly, which also starred Brad Pitt.