“You can’t say no to Ridley Scott” – so decried Jim Gianopulos, the movie mogul chairman of 20th Century Fox, as he warmed up the audience at a sodden Leicester Square for one of the Oscar season’s first big hitters.
It’s true, it is highly unlikely that the pitch for The Counselor would have been taken on so vehemently had near any other director on the planet pinned his name on it. After all, its blend of elliptic dialogue and heavy themes would usually seem far from commercially viable, especially considering the hefty price of such an impressive cast list. Even with a writer as prestigious as Cormac McCarthy behind the screenplay, it doesn’t seem particularly feasible.
The result is a strange beast, an artful mix of philosophical tangents and brutal violence that never quite settles into a comfortable rhythm. Though it is by no means a complete talent bomb, The Counselor still remains far from the sum of its incredible parts.
As the film begins, we are placed in the suede shoes of the titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender), a lawyer living beyond his means who finds himself way in over his head when a mutual criminal venture with Reiner (Javier Bardem accompanied by a snake-tongued Cameron Diaz) goes about as wrong as it could possibly go. The proceeding events cause his life to unravel and he finds himself quickly being swept away from his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz) and the life that he had so painstakingly created for himself.
It’s a plot that seems to simultaneously take its time and move at a breakneck speed. This is a film where anything could happen, there are no indispensable characters and McCarthy seems happy to rip the rug out from under you at any time. If nothing else, it makes for genuinely interesting viewing, just out of the sheer curiosity as to what’s going to happen next.
At its best the script is ethereal, floating between powerful depth and blackened humour with an ease typical of the writer. At its worst, it comes across as clunky, as if the assembled crew were too afraid upon the script’s first reading to risk eclipsing McCarthy’s grand vision with any sort of criticism. As such, there are scenes which suffer from the clash of naturalistic acting and stylized dialogue, with several cast members – Diaz in particular- visibly struggling to convey the correct emphasis.
As the ear grows accustomed to the style of speech it becomes an easier burden to bear, but there are still enough awkward exchanges to prevent you from ever getting truly comfortable. The unedited nature of the script also leaves McCarthy’s writing feeling thematically patchy, mixing the brilliant with the questionable a tad too frequently and leaving the subtexts of several scenes feeling incredibly telegraphed. If someone had cut out the dead weight or suggested some constructive changes, the screenplay could have ended up as something truly unique and brilliant. In its place though we are left with a slice of occasional genius fraught with the kind of inconsistencies that make it feel like an opportunity missed.
Unfortunately, the performances are an equally mixed bag. Bardem is a delight as a sleazy peacock of a man and is the source of some genuine humour in an otherwise thoroughly serious actors’ piece. Fassbender, whilst billed as the lead, spends much of the film playing foil to his more eccentric co-characters, but still allows his unquestionable talent to shine through in the handful of scenes where he takes center stage (one particular breakdown later on in the film is brilliantly played).
On the other hand, Cruz appears to struggle with the dialogue and Diaz’s role should have flat out been given to a better actress. As Malkina (Bardem’s tattooed and bedazzled mistress), Diaz is tasked with playing a calculated sociopath with a foggily disturbing past. Whilst her character’s position is central, she spends much of the film trying to wrestle the dialogue into shape, rather than find the required depths for such a pivotal figure. There are rumours that Angelina Jolie was first choice for the part – certainly a more natural fit – and Diaz is left looking like a poor and under-qualified substitute in comparison.
The variable qualities of the script fortunately do not extend to the The Counselor‘s technical setup, where it’s utterly stellar. Ridley Scott will be the first to admit that he’s an art director at heart, and it shows. The whole film looks beautiful, every set has been painstakingly constructed and every shot looks to have been deftly created by the most professional of hands. The sound design is equally spot on, sparsely setting the perfect atmosphere for artfully lit rooms and vast desertscapes. With the exception of some slightly dodgy CGI cheetahs (a minor gripe if ever there was one), this film is technically perfect and sits as a testament to the enduring vision of Scott and his creative team.
Despite all the painstaking work behind its construction, The Counselor sadly struggles to find a true emotional core. Behind all the stylised visuals and bizarre mixes of blatant exposition and complete ellipsis is a group of characters that never insight any true human connection. What use is a permanently dangled sword of Damocles when you don’t particularly care for those upon whom it threatens to fall? The script feels too calculated and cold to imbue any significant sense of humanity (maybe that was the goal?), but it serves to rob many scenes of their tension and leaves the more emotionally charged moments feeling toothless.
The Counselor is undeniably unique, and despite its flaws it still stands as a victory for the more artful side of blockbuster cinema (its painstakingly detailed looks and multi-layered plot make it the kind of film rarely seen in the mainstream). Admirable as that is, its brilliant construction fails to hide a problematic script that leaves the cast with too much leg work and the audience without any lasting attachments to hold on to.
Though it hints at so much promise, The Counselor never quite hits you in the way you would hope. The pieces may be there, but it never finds the panache to put them all together.