At the risk of attracting accusations of schadenfreude, The Counsellor is the kind of film critics love, too big to fail and yet it falls flat on its polished, botoxed face. It comes weighed down with promise. It’s directed by Sir Ridley of house Scott, always a draw despite aiming below his paygrade in recent years. It has five talented and immensely attractive leads, boasting more award nominations, chiselled features and curves than any one film really needs. Most intriguing of all, it’s based on the first screenplay by Pulitzer-Prize winner Cormac McCarthy, whose prose once made Javier Bardem seem scary despite a haircut by Lego. In The Counsellor, along with his fellow cast members, all Bardem can do is work against the very idiocy they’re forced to spew forth and serve as dialogue.
Be under no illusion: The Counsellor is bad. Not underwhelming. Not disappointing. B. A. D. It has too many well-mounted elements to be the worst film of the year (DP Dariusz Wolski might be the only person to come out of The Counsellor with dignity intact), but watching so many potentially-positive components of the film turn on the finished product is akin to witnessing a car crash in slow motion. Take the opening scene, in which the titular Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) roll under their bedsheets and utter inanities like “Tell me what you want to do to me.” “Lift up my dress.” “You’re not wearing a dress” and so forth. Had he put this opening in his next novel, McCarthy would be up for next year’s Literary Times Bad Sex Award.
From there, we jump to Amsterdam, where the Counsellor is buying a large diamond for an engagement ring. He buys the rock from a diamond trader played by Bruno Ganz, in the first of a series of odd cameos that only add to the total talent being wasted here. Without warning or provocation he delivers a very McCarthy-esque monologue on the diaristic natures of stone and the edifying nature of the Jews upon modern nations. The importance of setting up the Counsellor and Laura’s relationship via the upcoming engagement is debatable, but any plot turn is really an excuse for McCarthy to crank up the McCarthy-isms. We get plenty of male regret and angst, scenes of bloody violence and hunks of dialogue that cannot be swallowed easily. The erudition on display amongst this crowd of dope-runners and thieves is too grandiose for a big screen crime thriller. That said, McCarthy can write this shit, but that doesn’t mean the assembled cast can say it. Well, they can, but they shouldn’t.
Another early scene sees drug lord Reiner (Javier Bardem, swapping Silva’s mink rug for a petrified hedgehog atop his bonce) and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz, with hints of the Bahaman accent she was forced to overdub in post-production) taking their pet cheetahs (They’re rich from drugs, see?) to chase rabbits. Whilst he pours her a cocktail from the bar in his car boot, she reveals a cynical worldview via another long speech. When Reiner accuses her of being cold, she looks at him with a slight sneer and declares,
The truth has no temperature.
Run that one over in your mind. Swirl it about like a overly-sweet Merlot at a tasting. Spit it out and dwell on it. WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?! In theatres, this will get more than a few titters, without question. What does it mean? Is Malkina just saying it for shits and giggles? Or does it have another meaning that only McCarthy’s gilded mind can comprehend? The amused confusion is confounded by the fact that Diaz and Bardem play this dialogue completely straight, as does every other cast member in every other scene. One can’t escape the feeling that even a scraping of irony could have made this film tolerable. The audience is laughing at The Counsellor, but The Counsellor is incapable of laughing at itself.
The film is top heavy with portent and speechifying, and it’s also got quite a lot of plot, but the film seems a lot less interested in what exactly is going on. It boils down to Reiner and the Counsellor making a deal through a business associate, Westray (Brad Pitt), for a massive shipment of cocaine. As is the way of these things, events take a turn for the worst, with bloodshed and loss of innocence by way of more pseudo-philosophical utterances. The drugs are in a sewage tanker travelling from Mexico to Chicago, via a motorbike accident had by a young drug dealer and a shootout that sends the drugs into other hands. The plot is lost in amongst the garbled meetings between the Counsellor, Westray, Reiner, Malkina and all the stories they tell. These lessons serve little purpose beyond McCarthy ego-stroking and audience befuddlement. How else can anyone explain the existence of a scene in which Malkina has sex with a Ferrari?
In an already infamous scene Reiner recalls to the Counsellor an incident in which Malkina teased him in a moment of sprained eroticism that strains what little credibility the film has by this point. Cameron Diaz, spread-eagled on the windshield of a mustard yellow Ferrari, gyrates back and forth while front-seat passenger Javier Bardem stares agog at a sight he goes on to compare to a bottom-feeding catfish. Unless McCarthy was momentarily possessed by the spirit of JG Ballard, this scene is indefensible. It fails to be sexy, serious or relevant, as does the whole film. After all, how can anyone take a film seriously in which the lead character, who in in about 95% of the film, is never given a proper name? He’s not mysterious or cool enough to drift by on a pseudonym, and when the likes of Reiner and Westray address him as ‘Counsellor’ repeatedly, the shoddiness of the characters begins to show. Of the leading quintet, Fassbender comes across best, bringing out some much needed emotion as the film drags on. A phone call between our conflicted Counsellor and cartel member Jefe (Rubén Blades) is the closest we get to any emotional connection to any character, as he weeps for all the evil he has brought upon himself. Pitt and Bardem have some hammy fun with their roles, ultimately opting to let their hairstyles and costumes overwhelm them. Cruz is given nothing to do and Diaz is dreadful as the the ice-cold vixen Malkina. Ice-cold is right; no warmth, depth or charm whatsoever, save for a few moments of autophilia.
The Counsellor is terrible, yet it’s not entertaining enough to be so-bad-its-good. It has no interest in its plot or in its shitty characters, save as vessels for McCarthy’s nigh-untouchable prose. The characters are never lost for words; they are lost in words, drowning in dull excess verbiage. No-one talks like this, except in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The only problem is he hasn’t adapted for the leap from book to screen, and Scott and his crew can only look on agog in an effort to understand what they have signed on for. To say The Counsellor needs a counsellor would be too easy. Considering how soulless and morbid the whole thing is, an exorcist might be more like it.