Cormac McCarthy books have been made into some of the best movies you will ever watch. The likes of No Country for Old Men and The Road are the epitome of how adaptations should work and McCarthy’s blend of philosophical dialog and actually interesting plots just makes some damn fine movie watching. It stands to reason that McCarthy himself should be able to spit out a damn fine screenplay then. After all, you’re just cutting out the middle man here.
The Counselor proves that sometimes a middle man is a good thing.
Director: Ridley Scott
Release Date: October 25, 2013
The Counselor is definitely a Cormac McCarthy story. Dark and layered with characters as morally ambiguous as a politician. It’s got a stellar cast as well, as McCarthy films usually do. Michael Fassbender plays the titular Counselor (we never learn his actual name), a man who has run into some money problems and so joins Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) in a lucrative drug run. Things go wrong, embroiling not only those three in a run from the drug cartels, but also the Counselor’s fiance, Laura (Penélope Cruz), and Reiner’s not so trustworthy girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz).
If the plot sounds a bit thin, it’s because it is. The movie functions as more of a character study than a drug drama and dives head long into discussions on morality, life and the choices we make. Dives might be too soft a word. The film plunges like a runaway care into these themes and leaves little room for exposition or story set up, instead choosing to make the audience pick up the plot points as it rambles along. I’m all for movies that don’t hold your hand, but ambiguity should not be mistaken for intelligence. The Counselor seems to be mysterious simply for the sake of being mysterious. Instead of piecing together a cohesive whole it functions more as a series of conversations that feel like they’re trying to be smart.
There’s no restraint for McCarthy it seems, and so a conversation on preparedness in life, which admittedly would have played well on the page, comes off more like a philosophical lecture than a scene in a movie. While McCarthy’s previous adaptations may have taken liberally from his text on the page they were all controlled by a screenwriter who knew how to make it work on the screen. It doesn’t help that director Ridley Scott doesn’t appear to want to make the movie work either. Scenes jump around so much that for the first half of the film it’s hard to get a bearing, and by the time you do it’s hard to maintain interest as the tenth overly long, “deep” phone conversation begins.
The worst part might be that there are moments in this movie that are sheer brilliance. Scenes that transcend the rest of the film’s desperate attempts to seem smart and actually are. There’s an overall narrative and structure that could have worked if the film hadn’t been busy meandering into so many quagmires. Near the end of the movie Fassbinder gives an Academy Award worthy performance while a cartel boss unravels a beautiful philosophical debate on how our decisions create new lives for us. There a few moments and scenes in the film that really work and they almost make sitting through the rest of the movie worth your while. Unfortunately, they are just a few too far between to really make the movie pump. McCarthy’s screenplay is littered with greatness, but there was no one there to turn all that litter into a piece of modern art.
The cast tries its damndest, though. Given long monologues that are tough to swallow and some incredibly intense scenes almost everyone delivers as best as you could expect. Fassbender is especially striking as his shell of a character is slowly destroyed throughout the film. Bardem is as intense as ever and while many of the scenes between the two actors aren’t actually that great seeing them play off of each other is. It’s pretty clear that everyone involved in the film dug deep to pull out their performances, but the depth is unfortunately a facade.
Well, everyone except Cameron Diaz, who delivers an almost film wrecking turn as a confusingly malicious character. She can’t seem to wrap her performance around the complex ideas that her character spouts and so the already bloated dialog sinks hard. She has the last monologue at the end of a film of monologues and it is easily the worst. It’s not all her fault as the movie, for some reason, sees the need to actually hold the audiences hand at the exact moment it shouldn’t. The one moment when things should truly be obscure — when you’ve finally gotten into the characters thanks to the actor’s stellar performances — is the exact moment when everything gets spelled out. It’s a bad film choice covered by a bad performance.
It’s such a strange conclusion to such a complex movie. The Counselor could have a lot going for it if it just got out of its own way. There’s some incredible ideas, writing, directing and acting in this film that all get bogged down under the movie’s almost desperate need to seem deep. But it’s really that ending that nails the coffin closed because once you do get into The Counselor you can start to appreciate it. It’s at that very moment when it stops appreciating you.