There has been much anticipation for The Counselor due to it’s uniformly great cast, directing credit from Ridley Scott, but mostly for being the first original screenplay from famed Southern-Gothic author Cormac McCarthy. What’s immediately apparent is that everyone involved are clearly talented. However, that doesn’t mean that sum is any greater than its parts.
McCarthy tells the story of The Counselor (never named, played by Michael Fassbender) who decides to dive into the underworld drug trade to make some big bucks, only to watch as it all falls apart around him. The premise is simple enough but McCarthy seems bent on injecting it with his usual Hemingway-esque undercurrent of pessimism. The dialogue is packed so dense in every single scene that it becomes a chore just to decipher what the characters are saying. The problem isn’t that the dialogue is bad, it’s that it’s too good. Imagine if the final monologue from Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men was how every scene played out. It becomes burdensome and laborious to not only follow the dialogue, but to understand the hidden meanings McCarthy is getting at.
The issue of McCarthy writing a film as if it were a novel to be pored over may not be such a big issue if Ridley Scott were able to inject any sort of excitement into the film at all. Of course the tone is going to recall No Country For Old Men and The Road but the reason the former was such a masterpiece is because between it’s moments of philosophical meanderings, it has visually arresting moments of violence and dialogue free scenes where the audience can take a breather from the more heady stuff. Scott isn’t able to handle the material as well as the Coen Brothers were. Overall, the film is flat and lifeless despite containing the same elements that made No Country such a treat.
Overall, the film is just less visually enjoyable. It may remind some of last year’s Killing Them Softly which was also attacked for being too dialogue heavy. Yet where that film succeeded — and yes, it was a great film — was that it’s plot was at least simple and linear. In The Counselor the plot is purposefully obfuscated, as if ambiguity is synonymous with profundity. As a novel, it would be a great read, but Scott is never able to lift McCarthy’s words off the page and make it a visual story. He doesn’t offer anything for the audience to latch onto in lieu of grasping McCarthy’s rich dialogue. Whereas someone like Charlie Kaufman, who also writes dense dialogue, is able to overcome the “intelligence” issue by giving his stories an emotional core, Scott’s film is cold and uninviting.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of pure genius. Javier Bardem’s turn as Reiner an entrepreneur/drug kingpin is revelatory and definitely the high point of the film. He provides the only real humor — and humanity, for that matter — in the film and also tells a story about his girlfriend, the cold and cheetah obsessed Malkina (Cameron Diaz) having sex with his car. It’s that scene that will probably be the largest take away from the film for being brilliantly hilarious and bizarre, as is Bardem’s reaction to telling it. Even Brad Pitt as a middleman for the deal and Penelope Cruz as The Counselor’s fiancee put in good performances, it’s just that the film never does them justice.
It’s a film that has an absorbent amount of talent — perhaps too much as the famous faces in even the smallest of roles begins to distract — but just never comes together as a whole. If McCarthy wants to continue as a screenwriter he’ll need to slow down his dialogue and start writing for the screen rather than the page. That, or he needs to team up with a director that’s better attuned to his style and subtleties.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5.