Prior to its U.S. release a few weeks ago, nobody really seemed to be talking about The Counselor (or Counsellor if you’re in the UK). This was rather odd in itself as, just look at the people behind this film; Ridley Scott directing with many of his usual off-screen collaborators, an all-star cast, and a screenplay by highly acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy. On paper, it looked like a sure-fire awards contender, but there was not a mention of it along with all the 12 Years a Slave and Gravity buzz building up. When it was released, the reviews came in, a lot were very negative, and the box office returns minimal. It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster though; it’s had several prominent, staunch defenders. It seemed The Counselor was going to be a highly divisive film, with more viewers coming down on the negative side. So now I have to be one of those annoying people and say that I neither loved nor hated the film.
The Counselor has some problems to be sure, it begins with a rather cringe-worthy love scene, between the unnamed counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend (Penelope Cruz) that’s both quite graphic yet also filmed in a way as to be devoid of any nudity or detail. The film is very wordy throughout, as the counsellor gets talked into involvement with a drug deal by Reiner (Javier Bardem, rocking yet another ridiculous hairdo).
The film also brings in characters abruptly without any kind of introduction, (usually played by recognizable actors such as John Leguizamo and Bruno Ganz) and often they appear and disappear quickly without having made much of an impression. The film also unwisely has Dean Norris appear in one such role dealing with drug smugglers, inviting Breaking Bad comparisons.
Now there is the case of one particular, already notorious scene; I’ll call it ‘automobile erotica’. It’s a moment that’s impossible to take seriously. Though it’s rendered mildly less outrageous by being presented as an anecdotal flashback with commentary, it’s still likely to live on in the annals of film infamy.
The film is not an easy one to follow, it often appears to jump forward in time with no indication that this has happened, or how much time has passed, in one instance two characters apparently find time to get married off-screen. While it might have little interest in assisting it audience to follow the plot, it is less so with some themes are symbolism. The film is clearly trying to deal with some big themes, a lot of which are quite obvious (not necessarily a flaw), and the outlook looks bleak for all who decide to get involved with the dangerous world of Mexican drug cartels.
Yet, what can I say? I was not for one moment even remotely bored during The Counselor. The film was at times, fascinating and gripping and I was with it all the way. Scott brings his expected visual excellence, crafting lots of striking Tex-Mex border imagery. For all its problematic character work, the film gives us some intriguing insights into cartel workings (these may all be fictional, but still). Some of these involve the film’s best set pieces, two tense scenes that lead to a couple of the most memorable screen deaths of the year.
Fassbender is dependable in the lead, though we know so little of his character I wonder what he had to work with, and his role is somewhat akin to Neo in The Matrix, being drawn into this world he knows little about, and having to look confused and surprised a lot. Brad Pitt (re-teaming with Scott for the first time since Thelma & Louise) and Bardem are also fine but the women fare less well. Penelope Cruz gets very little to do and Cameron Diaz, as Bardem’s girlfriend, plays a character that’s very hard to define. Diaz doesn’t sell the danger of her and her background is left feeling most confusing (where is she even supposed to be from?).
The Counselor is an intentionally grim film, curbed by a screenplay that’s apparently more interested in having characters discuss its ideas at length than present a coherent story, but it’s also as audacious and unorthodox a film as we’re likely to see A-list Hollywood talent put out this year, and that’s something that shouldn’t be dismissed.