Nothing about The Counselor is easy. I can describe the plot of the movie in one sentence, but it would take me pages to try to decipher it. Essentially, the film is about an unnamed lawyer (Michael Fassbender), who, despite being an otherwise straight-laced guy, decides to make a few extra bucks by going in on a drug trafficking deal. The motives for his greed are left unknown. Perhaps it is to shower his girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) with wealth, despite the fact that she seems more than pleased with him as is. Perhaps it’s to impress himself, or pay off a debt elsewhere. We never know the root of the Counselor’s greed. Maybe because greed often speaks for itself.
For guidance on the drug deal, the Counselor consults with a handful of color characters, including his partner on the deal, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and criminal consultant, Westray (Brad Pitt). Both of these men spend the entirety of their time with the Counselor explaining how dangerous this drug deal is. Once you’re in with these cartels, you’re in for good. Fuck up once, and you’re dead. And so on. Despite these incessant warnings, the Counselor goes all in. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for things to unravel, and, well, best to end the narrative description there.
Sounds simple enough, right? But 10 minutes into the film, I knew this flick was destined to split audiences harshly. It all comes down to the script. Cormac McCarthy’s relentlessly verbose, utterly confounding script. The plot of the movie I’ve just described is in no way spelled out for the viewer. In fact, I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on for the first half of a film. I listened intently and prayed that things would start to make sense.
If you’ve read McCarthy’s novels, you know that he writes challenging prose. His expository details are unforgiving in their length, and routinely demand the guidance of a thesaurus. His dialogue, however, is usually rather straightforward. Nearly every single word of dialogue the Coen brothers used in No Country for Old Men was taken directly from McCarthy’s source novel. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning text, “The Road,” dialogue is an afterthought to setting. My point is, McCarthy’s script for The Counselor has its characters speak in McCarthy’s famed exposition, using extended parables and metaphorical anecdotes that barely connect. If nothing else, The Counselor proves how vital a screenplay is to a film. If this film had more of a straight story, I’m sure it would be a bigger hit. But they chose a different direction, one that is clearly maddening the masses, but that I find unapologetically refreshing.
You might wonder if Michael Fassbender puts in the kind of reliable work we’ve come to expect from him. Yes, he sure does. His Counselor is a different role for him. A confident but vulnerable man. Rich but greedy. Innocent yet lost. The anti tough guy. You might wonder if Javier Bardem is as zany as he looks in the film’s trailer. Sure is. How about Cameron Diaz, is she as effective a femme fatale as the marketing materials have suggested? In my opinion, hell yeah, but many have and will disagree.
But is The Counselor perfect? No, of course not. There are several scenes in the film that, while occasionally entertaining, have nothing to do with anything. They don’t even promote solid character development. (As amusing as it is to watch Cameron Diaz literally fuck a car, and listen to Bardem puzzlingly explain the whole thing later, the scene exists solely so that The Counselor can be remembered as that film where Cameron Diaz literally fucked a car.)
I could go on, but many other reviews have had a thrilling time bashing this film to pieces, so I leave you with this: The Counselor struggles to make sense, because it wants to struggle to make sense. Whether or not you’re willing to accept that as worthy art is entirely up to you. B