Ridley Scott directing. Cormac McCarthy writing. Michael Fassbender starring. What could possibly go wrong?
The Counsellor is a sinewy joint of dusty Tex-Mex fatalism from the formidable pen of Cormac McCarthy. It looks impassively on as a handsome amateur is swept out of his depth after a big-time drug deal goes fatally south. It boasts scads of major-league off-screen action, some devilishly weaponised farmyard machinery, a laconic, cowboy-hatted wise-owl picking over the human wreckage and a chillingly ludicrous turn from Javier Bardem in a loopy fright wig. In fact, The Counsellor bears so many outward similarities to the Coen brothers’ masterly, Oscar-winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men that it’s not initially obvious where exactly it could go at all wrong.
The immaculate cast — which includes Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt alongside a slew of showy cameos — is bulletproof. Dariusz Wolski’s photography conjures up a febrile synthesis of dogpatch dilapidation and narcotic allure, and Daniel Pemberton (erstwhile composer of the theme from Peep Show!) twangs at all the right places on the discordant soundtrack. So why is The Counsellor such an inert, dispiriting, detached, disjointed, counterfeit and clumsy film?
It would be unfair to level blame for all and every one of The Counsellor’s many and grievous shortcomings at director Ridley Scott. Extremely tempting, but unfair. He is working from an original script (from McCarthy — his first) that is not only undernourished and lacking in focus but also abstruse to the point of being quarrelsome.
Yet Scott is an industry titan, not a newbie to be cowed by a big-name screenwriter. It is ultimately his hand at the tiller even before the cameras start rolling, not just after. The Counsellor — much like last year’s narratively lackadaisical Prometheus — works from a script that clearly needs be broken down and rebuilt from the ground up in order to function. Did, perhaps, McCarthy’s fearsome literary pedigree so impress Scott that he looked past the script’s flaws and called action on what is, at heart, a pile-up of hokey, derivative trash that doesn’t even work on a rubbernecking level?
The plot fancies itself as being elliptical and convoluted, but boiled right down it’s the simple immorality tale of a swanky El Paso lawyer (Fassbender) going in on a one-time drug deal with his flamboyant club-owner client (Bardem) and falling almost immediate prey to the violent cosmic turbulence, oblique brimstone rhetoric and ungovernable furies that hold eternal sway over McCarthy’s unforgiving universe.
Padding comes from a host of fanciful, pulpy adornments that could have been sprung from an overexcited adolescent’s best-ever wet-dream: snuff movies, pointlessly elaborate torture devices, scheming blonde sexbombs, hip hotels, exotic plungepools, cool cars, beheadings, strip-clubs and Japanese superbikes. There are even — purely for a thundering allegory on the immutable nature of man — a couple of leopards mooching in the backdrop.
McCarthy’s reality is deliberately heightened, but Scott’s attempts to cleave to the commonplace — basic compositions, bland, everyday environments, interminable phone conversations — strands the characters between stools. The result is neither use nor ornament, with bloodless, floundering characters divorced from the escalating madness that swirls around them — something that irreconcilably contradicts the grimly holistic themes of universal culpability that are at the heart of McCarthy’s script.
These disarrayed planets only truly line up for the already infamous scene in which Fassbender listens aghast while Bardem recounts a sexual three-ball between himself, his scheming trophy girlfriend Cameron Diaz’s front bottom and the windscreen of his Ferrari. "It was," Bardem recalls, with a mix of sexual terror and pure holy wonder "hallucinatory…"
It is a doozy of a scene that will likely live on for all the wrong reasons. In context, it is the one, surreal moment when the film’s mismatched gauges click together to remind us that — as the poet once said — circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances, and that the world can, in a heartbeat, pull us into unimaginably strange and disturbing places from which there is simply no direction home.
Even taking into account the growing rumbles that it’s a jewel-encrusted turkey, we’d be foolish to not give this cast and crew every chance possible.
Confused, confusing and thoroughly unsatisfying. Doesn’t even have the good grace to be truly laughable.
Scott tries manfully to capture some of that taught, dusty No Country… vibe, but, in doing so, takes his eye off the matter at hand.