There’s an undeniable slickness to this 2013 drama by Ridley Scott, perhaps best summed up by the presence of good-looking movie stars in prominent roles (Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem), while the sparkling trailer – all fast cars, crisp white linen, lavish offices and not a blemish, varicose vein or facial tic in sight – ensured that I was initially wary. I was also conscious of the slew of bad reviews that The Counsellor* received upon its release in cinemas, and although my interest in the film never quite disappeared in the wake of the negative response (hey…good director, good actors, an original script by Cormac McCarthy…you’ve really got to make your own mind up), the bad press probably explains why I have been reticent until now. My curiosity was re-ignited by one or two reviews that went against the grain, though, as they both suggested that Scott’s film would be re-appraised and celebrated in the long run.
That’s a view I tend to agree with. In this post Mark Walker suggested that concentrating on the dialogue and the occasionally-long monologues ensured a richly-rewarding experience, and he certainly wasn’t alone in thinking this way; there were earlier sporadic, positive reviews in The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Times and on the BBC’s flagship Film show, while Variety‘s chief critic Scott Foundas wrote an interesting article arguing that The Counsellor is in fact one of Scott’s best films, and suggests that one day it will be regarded as highly as Blade Runner (another Scott film which, pertinently, is a doom-laden noir update that received quite a few kickings upon its initial release).
Personally I wouldn’t quite go that far, but I am glad that I finally sat down and watched this cautionary tale, in which Fassbender’s avaricious Texan lawyer (referred to as ‘the counsellor’ throughout) does bad business with a major Mexican drug cartel and subsequently finds acts of mercy in short supply. McCarthy’s script is far better than I expected, and I cannot for the life of me understand why there were so many negative reviews, although the suggestion by Foundas that mainstream cinema audiences have simply lost their appetite for anything remotely daring (‘remotely daring’ here being a general dearth of action in favour of long conversations between characters and a screenplay that doesn’t spoon-feed answers) may well be true.
Because of its reliance on extended scenes in which characters are perplexingly not shooting at each other, or not chasing one another across rooftops, reviews of The Counsellor tended to refer to its slow pace, as if that could only ever be a criticism. Well, the pace is slow, but necessarily so. Just as importantly: it’s deliberate. If I had a penny for each review I’ve read where people use the phrase ‘the pace is slow’ rather than something along the lines of ‘I don’t enjoy slow-paced films’ or ‘the pace is too slow’ (either could be implied, but perhaps should be stated explicitly) then I’d be a rich man, and possibly either setting up a deal with a cartel myself or, more likely, paying Cormac McCarthy to write further scripts. (Not that I am intending to dismiss legitimate concerns about this film held by reviewers, or disparage anyone’s opinions; it’s just that the anti-slow pace thing bugs the hell out of me. Have we regressed so much that every major release now has to sustain Mad Max: Fury Road / Michael Bay / superhero movie levels of velocity to avoid being kicked to death by the end of opening weekend?)
Fassbender is solid – you might even say ‘good’ – as the lawyer stepping out of his depth and mistakenly relying on the advice of two arrogant cutthroats (Pitt’s smug middleman, Bardem’s kingpin entrepreneur). Despite appearances to the contrary and their apparent wealth not one of these men is at the top of the food chain, and there is something immature about each of them; their greed cannot be sated and two in particular insist on imbuing their lives with meaning by purchasing expensive status symbols (nightclubs, flamboyant clothes, pet cheetahs, expensive cars, swish apartments). All three are so blinded by dollar signs and/or keen to expand on their own legend that they are easily ‘played’ in one way or another by the cold, calculating and knowing Malkina (Diaz), a well-written and intriguing femme fatale who I wish appeared in the film more often, but her methods are largely kept off screen. Meanwhile Cruz plays the counsellor’s naive wife-to-be, who accepts all the gifts that come her way and mistakenly believes that her ignorance of the counsellor’s business affairs will keep her safe from harm.
There are problems. Several of the main characters are irritatingly suave and very much in love with themselves, which at least affects how you feel about the respective falls they take, but the presence of bona fide movie stars in these roles adds an unwarranted level of smugness. How they managed to stop George Clooney from getting involved is anyone’s guess, especially given the fact that this movie even has the same kind of slick production design as his coffee ads. Additionally, I’m not a fan of the decision to cast really good, recognisable actors in blink-and-you’ll-miss-em minor roles: John Leguizamo, Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris, Game Of Thrones‘ Natalie Dormer and … um … Donna Air get one scene apiece; Scott isn’t really making the most of their talents, and neither are their agents, although admittedly Dormer’s role on her TV show has only really expanded post-The Counsellor.
McCarthy’s screenplay apparently proved to be a little vague for some tastes, and thus I can see why people disliked being made to feel obtuse by the film, which perhaps explains some of the criticism. However I liked it and I think the plot is clear enough and easy to follow. It’s certainly a film that takes itself very seriously but I enjoyed delving into its gaudy world, in which Diaz makes love to a car windscreen while wearing a leopard-print dress, Pitt sports an all-white cowboy suit and Bardem dresses in a range of vomit-inducing shirts. In fact after a while it began to remind me of the tastelessness and excess of De Palma’s Scarface and Scorsese’s Casino, with Scott using contrasting images of poorer Mexican village life abundantly (though it must be said that the writer and director place very little focus on the majority of the Mexicans working directly or indirectly for the cartel in this story, and therefore only a few have speaking parts). Pretty good.
* I’ve given the name of the film an extra ‘l’ throughout this review, as that’s how it appeared in the UK, and as everyone knows extra ‘l’s are how we rolll.
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Cormac McCarthy.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, John Leguizamo, Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer.
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski.
Editing: Pietro Scalia.
Music: Daniel Pemberton.
Running Time: 117 minutes.