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article imageReview: 'The Counselor' is a trial Special

By Kristal Cooper     Oct 25, 2013 in Entertainment
Ridley Scott's new film is very odd. It's both the most and least traditional crime drama you'll ever see, and it's a movie that seems way ahead of its time while also trafficking in stereotypes that are a relic of an era long past.
The Counselor is the first original screenplay that Cormac McCarthy has written — his novels The Road, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses and Child of God have been adapted for the screen — and although he's obviously a very capable novelist, writing for the visual format clearly has him stymied.
His story is about an unnamed lawyer (Michael Fassbender) whom everyone refers to simply as "the counselor" and his nefarious clients-turned-business partners, Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). In an effort to get a little extra cash, the counselor has gotten himself embroiled in a large-scale drug deal that eventually goes wrong to the tune of $20 million in missing product.
In typical McCarthy fashion, the dangers of dealing with a Mexican drug cartel have been explained to the counselor in a very eloquent and beautifully-worded fashion by pretty much everyone he's come in contact with, yet he's still shocked when things turn bad and suddenly he's worried not only about his own safety, but also for that of his saintly fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz).
Also complicating matters is Reiner's lady love Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a scheming woman with a secret plan and an almost omniscient knowledge of the goings-on in the underworld, not to mention the hit that a former client and grieving mother (Rosie Perez) has put out on the counselor. Soon the noose begins to tighten (or actually the "bolito" — a cool contraption that gets put to gory good use in the film) and the counselor is forced to head into the heart of cartel country to try and put a stop to the bloodshed.
Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in  The Counselor
Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in 'The Counselor'
20th Century Fox
Sounds really good, right? Well, it occasionally is. McCarthy certainly has a way with prose and when you're dealing with actors who know their way around a monologue, it can be a pretty amazing experience to essentially watch an acting class exercise come to life in front of you — especially when it's shot as beautifully as Ridley Scott shoots this film.
Where the film loses its way is in how it tries much too hard to be a labyrinthine potboiler spouting a message about the tyrannical power of greed and its cruel hold over a very spineless human kind. Sure there are quite a few complicated story threads (most of which never connect properly) and the characters have myriad philosophical discussions about the major themes (sometimes to the detriment of the film's pacing), but it never feels like it's in service of making an enjoyable, coherent film.
There's also the troubling reality of McCarthy's attitude towards women as explained by both Reiner and Westray. According to them, women have no proper morality and live only to mess with the lives of men for their own entertainment, unless you happen to be a devout, sexually timid-type and then you're an angel worth marrying. Diaz's Malkina is a one-note bad girl whose agenda for causing trouble is never really explained (nor does her end game make any sense) while Cruz's Laura is a one-note good girl who exists only to give the otherwise reptilian and flatly-written counselor any sort of depth or drive to move the story forward.
It also doesn't help that the film's central plot is convoluted and nearly nonsensical. Whether or not this was by design is up for debate but there's no doubt that it makes for an extremely unsatisfying movie-watching experience. It will however inspire lively discussion afterwards as you attempt to puzzle out important plot points that are just never explained or figure out how narrative threads that were introduced and then almost immediately dropped fit into the bigger picture.
The Counselor is a trial to watch and not even a stellar cast, some beautiful prose by a celebrated writer or some savvy work by a world-class director can change that. It may be a beautiful mess, but it's a mess all the same.
The Counselor opens on October 25, 2013.
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