The Counselor Review – Tex-Mex Gruel

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Cormac McCarthy

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem

Release date: October 25th, 2013

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 118 minutes



Best part: Scott’s direction.

Worst part: The harsh overtones.

Rejected and underpaid by tinsel-town’s famous faces and studios, screenwriters deserve infinitely more credit. In this century, writers are pushed away because they seemingly lack enviable commercial traits. However, writers build the roots of every artistic project. Without their words, labour, and guidance, directors and actors would have nothing to work with. Occasionally, some writers, jumping between screenwriting and novel writing, are credited for breaking the immense and crippling Hollywood-screenwriter stigma. Novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) launches into screenplay territory with his latest creation, fitting into his own disturbing and ground-breaking genre.

Michael Fassbender.

The Counselor is a writhing and monstrous beast unable to stay still for extended periods. The movie’s impatience and moodiness stand above its flaws. However, the flaws prevent this crime-drama from being as brilliant and transcendent as McCarthy thinks it is. McCarthy’s first screenplay mixes every drug trafficking drama cliche and McCarthy-writing convention into one sprawling tale. The intricate plot is difficult to explain, but still has been covered in similar Tex-Mex thrillers. The movie’s plot is a convoluted miasma of colourful characters and bizarre plot strands. Keeping up with The Counselor‘s convoluted narrative is like trying to out run a cheetah. Although, funnily enough, the previous sentence is startlingly relevant. The movie starts out with several intriguing sequences. First off, a lawyer known only as ‘Counselor’ (Michael Fassbender) and Laura (Penelope Cruz) are in the throws of love. Enjoying the physical and emotional benefits of their scintillating romance, Counselor wants to seal the deal with a gargantuan wedding ring. The ring’s impressive diamond, sold to him by an esteemed dealer (Bruno Ganz) in Amsterdam, shreds his financial status. Unwilling to admit to his faults, he enlists a Mexican drug smuggling operation’s services to obtain a slice of the high life. Thanks to elaborate businessman Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his promiscuous girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Counselor follows orders whilst tracking a cocaine-filled sewage truck across the US/Mexico border. With middleman Westray(Brad Pitt)’s help, Counselor can impress his fiancee and confidants. However, like with other McCarthy stories, nothing goes according to plan.

Cameron Diaz & Penelope Cruz.

Despite its ambitiousness and array of talent, The Counselor has received disastrously negative hype. With calling it the “worst movie ever made”, the hyperbolic reviews call the state of pop-culture and movie-going into question. Here, McCarthy’s intentions are obvious. Aiming to uniquely tell this cliched story, McCarthy fans will lap up this material. His script, whilst not fitting standard screenwriting rules, is chock-a-block with idiosyncrasies and standout moments. The poetic and potent narrative becomes a puzzle complete with strange and purposeful pieces. Intricate concepts are wedged together to emphasise certain sections of this heart-breaking story. However, despite the alluring narrative, this ambiguous tale leaves out vital details. Strangely, its many impressive concepts don’t congeal to develop a cohesive vision. McCarthy, convinced viewers will figure everything out for themselves, creates an elaborate landscape fuelled by excessiveness and mean-spiritedness. McCarthy’s cynical and degrading outlook on humanity, economics, and justice is injected into every intriguing frame. Accustomed to novel writing, his screenplay links insignificant details to important strands. Featuring several controversial yet unnecessary scenes, The Counselor won’t be hailed as his best work. Considering No Country for Old Men and The Road‘s grandioseness and poeticism, McCarthy needs a middleman to separate him from his acclaimed works’ adaptations. Here, the sprawling narrative, introducing cartel members, MacGuffins, and red herrings at random, becomes steadily frustrating up until its heart-wrenching climax. This saucy and sickening thriller delivers a behind-the-scenes look at the USA/Mexico drug trade. Despite the trade’s violence and illegality, McCarthy’s Shakespearean prose delves into this dangerous business’ philosophical aspects. Despite the inconsistencies, the organic dialogue elevates each exhaustive scene. The turns-of-phrase and witticisms become as enthralling as the inevitable gunfights and car chases.

Javier Bardem.

Despite its glowing positives, The Counselor is trashy, silly, misogynistic, and, at points, a bit of a mess. With each anecdote, one-liner, and metaphor filling many beguiling scenes, McCarthy’s tongue-twisting dialogue eventually becomes confusing and alienating. Forcing us to catch up with each meticulous line, this pulsating thriller continually relays its all-important messages. Throughout, symbols and sayings refer to such thought-provoking themes as greed, death, power, wealth, predatory instincts, submissiveness, and the soul’s darkest depths. Despite the commendable intentions and glorious words, McCarthy’s motifs and idiosyncrasies are glaringly discernible. The monologues about sex, femininity, sadism, decapitation, and religion, though well written, become steadily repetitive and repulsive. Surprisingly, The Counselor‘s joylessness doesn’t stem from McCarthy alone. Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Black Hawk Down) understandably mourns his brother Tony’s recent death. In fact, this atmospheric and pulsating drama borrows aesthetic and narrative traits from his late brother’s oeuvre. Scott, normally building expansive universes (Prometheus) and kinetic action set-pieces (Gladiator), applies an approachable and glorious touch to this harsh narrative. Resembling such Coen Brothers crime-dramas as Blood Simple and Fargo, Scott’s magnetic visual style lifts an otherwise dour experience. Scott’s crazier projects (Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men) out live his more clinical efforts (HannibalBody of Lies). Thankfully, his gripping direction lodges The Counselor‘s heart-thumping set-pieces into the consciousness. The notorious ‘catfish’ sequence is bafflingly silly and miraculously entertaining. Like Scott’s previous efforts, The Counselor’s horrific violence is worth the admission cost. Presenting the US/Mexico border as a vicious wasteland, scenes like the razor-wire/motorbike sequence don’t disappoint.

“You are the world you have created. And when you cease to exist that world you have created will also cease to exist.” (Jefe (Ruben Blades), The Counselor).

Brad Pitt.

Scott’s pulpy and bold direction will keep even the most irritable viewer engaged. Those uninterested in the abrupt tonal shifts or McCarthy’s discourse can admire the miasmic flourishes within each composition. Scott’s enjoyable visuals, colour-coding particular sequences, stress the characters’ social and economic status’. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski efficiently develops an alternate universe powered by deception, murder, and brashness. Illuminating each setting’s most compelling features, Wolski and Scott create a vibrant and distressing portal into the movie’s vile yet advantageous world. Wild parties, elaborate villas, and expansive cityscapes provide eye-candy for this gritty and blood-soaked drama. The Counselor‘s A-list cast also bolster its production values. These destructive characters, coming across like Bond villains, continually find avenues to manipulate one another. Counselor, trained to conquer every situation, is a brave and effervescent figure. Continually told to step away from threatening situations, Counselor’s desperation and curiosity reveal the terrifying layers hidden behind his charismatic personality. Despite the unconvincing Texan accent, Fassbender’s remarkable screen presence pushes him along. Bardem also impresses as a vital strand of the movie’s excessive and expansive web. Expertly delivering McCarthy’s pontifications, Bardem brings charm and menace to his peculiar role. Sporting yet another zany hairstyle, Bardem brings this sociopathic character to life. Reiner, despite convincing himself of being ‘on top’, is whipped by his disturbing gal-pal. With the characters going toe-to-toe with one another (in more ways than one), Diaz struggles to wrap her mouth around McCarthy’s throbbing prose. Uncomfortably adjusting to her captivating role, Diaz is wholly miscast. Pitt’s pithy turn establishes his phenomenal range and tenacity. Sadly, Cruz is given short shrift as the sweet and naive love interest. In only a handful of scenes, Cruz is overshadowed by such enthralling character actors as Rosie Perez, Dean Norris, Reuben Blades, and Toby Kebbell.

Despite its overwhelming flaws, The Counselor proves McCarthy and Scott can still deliver thought-provoking and engaging material. This intense and witty crime-thriller, bolstered by its mean streak, rests between Traffic and Savages. Unfortunately, all talk and no action makes The Counselor a polarising thriller. If anything, McCarthy and Scott both just need a hug.

Verdict: A confused yet confronting crime-drama.

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