The Counselor (2013) – Movie Review

Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Actors: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Runtime: 117 min
Rating: 14A

When the books of an author are consistently adapted into highly successful film, it seems a natural progression for said author to try their hand at creating a screenplay. The Counselor pairs versatile director Ridley Scott with first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, who has written the novels upon which many acclaimed movies such as No Country for Old Men, The Road, and All the Pretty Horses were based. None can question the prowess of McCarthy as a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist; however, his screenwriting attempt leaves much to be desired within this film, despite strong direction and powerful acting.

Michael Fassbender portrays the titular Counselor, a hard-hitting yet generally well-meaning lawyer who finds his life spiralling out of control when he becomes involved in illegal drug trafficking. Although he receives fair warning from ringleaders Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) to stay away, greed pushes Counselor to risk everything, even his beloved fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), in his quest for wealth. The extent to which people are willing to go for the all-important dollar is the theme explored and, ultimately, revealed, with devastating conclusions.

The Counselor

The acting performances within this film are, for the most part, strong. Each talented actor crafts a fascinating and uniquely magnetic character; for example, although Reiner and Westray are ruthless drug lords, they captivate an audience, and we catch ourselves enjoying their unsavoury performances regardless of their character flaws. Counselor himself is clearly a greedy individual, so his likeability rests heavily on the portrayal of his relationship with Laura. It is the believable chemistry between Fassbender and Cruz, and the honest love that Counselor shows for Laura, that allows him to demonstrate humanity and to generate empathy from an audience. When his fortunes do inevitably begin to go downhill, we are able to pity him despite the knowledge that this turn of events was brought entirely upon himself. As he has proven with his incredibly diverse filmography, director Ridley Scott is able to work within any genre, and The Counselor is no exception. Scott creates an aesthetic of cold wealth early within the film that he maintains throughout, matching the main theme. Some shots are brutal, others are beautiful, and others, as expressed by Reiner’s scheming girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), are beautiful in their brutality.

The Counselor

Unfortunately, however, the main flaw within this film lies in its most highly anticipated element: McCarthy’s original screenplay. All of the nuance and subtlety found in his novels has disappeared, resulting in dialogue that is groan- and laugh-worthy by turns. When McCarthy writes a novel, he crafts a dark and often devastating world around his electric characters. Here, it appears as though a philosophical idea in regards to greed was first formulated, and McCarthy wrote the characters simply as vessels to display his idea through unrealistic conversation; it is a true testament to the abilities of these actors that they are able to create engaging characters even while delivering their weak lines.

Another failed aspect of this film is its depiction of sexuality. I have no qualms with graphic sex in film, when it serves a purpose; indeed, the pornography-laden Don Jon was one of my highest reviewed films at this year’s TIFF. The film opens with Counselor and Laura enjoying some dirty talk and sexual favours, and the scene works well to demonstrate their loving relationship and the genuine desire each feels to please the other. Diaz’s Malkina, on the other hand, is obsessed with sex, constantly talking about it in graphic terms or being depicted performing outrageously lewd acts. The reasons behind Malkina’s fixation are never revealed, however, and these scenes leave one wondering if they were included simply to create purposelessness sensationalism. One performance that is ineffective and stands out amidst the host of strong ones is that of Diaz as Malkina; when compared to her counterparts, her acting appears silly and overdone to the point of cliché.

The Counselor

As a great fan of McCarthy’s literature, I was disappointed by his stale and forced screenplay. His ideas are undoubtedly profound, but without the world of a novel to support them, his words simply fall flat. There are commendable aspects to be found within this film, such as the mesmerizing acting performances and memorable cinematography. Hopefully, The Counselor will be viewed as a failed experiment, and the exceptionally talented individuals involved will return to doing what each does best.