Sometimes when artists with wildly different aesthetic styles collaborate, the resulting work melds those competing sensibilities into something wholly unique. Other times, no artistic middle ground can be found and you’re stuck with a Frankenstein’s monster. The Counselor, a film directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy, is far more the latter than the former.
Michael Fassbender stars as the title character, a slick lawyer who is madly in love with Laura (Penélope Cruz). He asks her to marry him and she agrees, though she is unaware that serious financial troubles have prompted him to fund a drug deal with a shady but established middleman named Westray (Brad Pitt) that could bring in millions.
The counselor’s money woes stem from the fact that he’s investing in a club opened by his best friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), a hedonist and occasional client who has attained his wealth by any means necessary, and who likes to keep his wife Malkina (Cameron Diaz) covered in all of the accoutrements the rich enjoy.
But the counselor is unprepared to deal with the fallout when the drug deal starts to go wrong, and soon he’s trying to protect himself and his bride-to-be from the wrath of a cartel that has no qualms about exacting revenge.
With its high quotient of graphic violence, pulpy narrative, and mostly excellent casting, it’s tempting to think of The Counselor as Ridley Scott’s version of a Tony Scott movie. Yet that’s not to say that this looks or feels like anything other than a Ridley picture; it’s cool, elegant, and emotionally distant, whereas his younger brother made films that were hot, frenetic, and aimed to give his audience a visceral experience. The bloodshed here has no kick -- it’s the most tasteful carnage you can imagine -- and the stateliness is underscored by McCarthy’s windy, biblically tinged dialogue and the single-mindedness of his overriding theme of guilt.
Despite being packed with ominous violence, the movie is a talkfest. Each scene seems to be a ten-minute conversation between characters who don’t speak in a way that could be considered remotely normal. Although highly stylized verbiage can lead to poetic heights -- think of the Coen brothers or Tarantino -- it requires an ear for the beauty of spoken language, and McCarthy, while surely a wordsmith of the highest order, spent his career writing novels. This makes every single character come off, at best, as a symbol, or at worst, as a mouthpiece for the writer to lay out verbose explanations about the moral order of the universe.
McCarthy is assisted by a cast who are mostly up to the challenge. Fassbender can shift from dead-eyed shark to end-of-his-tether victim with ease; it’s honestly hard to think of many actors who could play a part this difficult this well. Yet while he’s the center of the whole film, you always want more time with Bardem, an actor who has the ability to make any line of dialogue sound not only natural but immediate -- as if the character just thought of it himself. He gets the most entertaining monologue in the entire movie -- it involves something Malkina did to his car that he can’t forget -- and the picture is more engaging when he’s onscreen. Sadly, Cameron Diaz is way out of her element here. She’s not an untalented performer, but she’s miscast in this material -- she doesn’t have the gravitas to sell the more pretentious lines she’s forced to deliver.
While The Counselor certainly has passages that are memorable, it’s also readily apparent that its style doesn’t mesh with its content. McCarthy requires grit, and it’s hard to think of a less gritty director than Ridley Scott. Together, the duo is less like peanut butter and chocolate than sushi and beans -- two great tastes that don’t taste great together.
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