There are no innocents in The Counselor, nor are there any pure motives. The film has a grim view of its characters, and the space they inhabit, which happens to be Texas and Mexico. Even the more virtuous of the characters are ultimately driven by greed, lust and vanity, their virtue only evident in comparison to the others around them. Novelist Cormac McCarthy is no stranger to the dim atmosphere he attempts to conjure in The Counselor (his first original screenplay), having built a career spinning morosely beautiful tales. Regrettably, whatever purpose the tone in The Counselor might have had is lost in a jumble of over the top scenarios and ponderous dialogue.
The film follows the nameless ‘Counselor’ (Michael Fassbender), who decides to begin a more hands on approach towards his clients’ activities after years of defending the crooked in the court of law. Despite warnings from men who know better, The Counselor is roped into a drug deal with the Mexican Cartel, which inevitably and unsurprisingly goes South. There’s really not much more to it. There are other things that happen, to be sure, but none of them really mean anything or make much sense. That could be the point, although I’m not really sure there is a point.
There’s no reason for any of it unfortunately, a realisation that begins to sink in around the halfway mark. It’s an uninteresting, devastatingly unsubtle film that labours under the pretension that it’s far more compelling than it actually is. With the notable exceptions of Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem, both of who do admirable jobs with ludicrous material, the performances range from uninspired to atrocious. Everything is spelled out for us to a ridiculous point. Cameron Diaz’s Malkina has leopard print tattoos and a gold tooth, just in case we couldn’t quite comprehending how devious she is from her laughable dialogue and demeanour, both of which fuse sex and danger to the most repellent of results. The plotting is also excessively explicit. A particularly gruesome method of execution is graphically explained early on (for no credible reason), and it’s one of the least surprising elements of a film with zero surprises when a character is later killed in that exact fashion.
It’s difficult to say where the fault lies. There is a distinct lack of style, which is uncharacteristic of director Ridley Scott. It may be, following the successes of McCarthy adaptations No Country for Old Men and The Road (neither screenplay was written by McCarthy himself) as well as McCarthy’s immense success as a novelist that the filmmaking team were imbued with an erroneous sense of quality. Production was halted for a week after the death of Scott’s brother Tony, which may have also been a contributing factor to the incredibly uneven tone and confused narrative in the film.
There are some good moments, particularly in the far stronger first half. A meeting between The Counselor and Brad Pitt’s Westray at a bar early on as well as a meeting in Amsterdam with a diamond dealer hint at the fantastic screenplay Cormac McCarthy might one day write. Unfortunately, The Counselor isn’t it.