Review: The Counsellor (2013)

the-counselor-javier-bardem-michael-fassbender

For confused British viewers (including myself), THE COUNSELLOR is about a lawyer, not a therapist. Ridley Scott’s latest brings together a seemingly talented bunch of actors, craftsmen (including DARK CITY’s cinematographer and GLADIATOR’s editor) and the legendary Cormac McCarthy writing his first original screenplay. The film then proceeds to waste them all.

The Counsellor follows a nameless lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who has gotten into unspecified trouble and now seeks to buy his way out by getting involved with a plot to steal a drug shipment from the Cartel on the request of Reiner (Javier Bardem) a playboy drug lord and his trophy girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz). As he gets in too deep, he tries to maintain a relationship with Laura (Penélope Cruz) and keep the deal moving with experienced dealer Westray (Brad Pitt) as events rapidly spin out of control.

The film is not good. Rarely do you manage to assemble such an impressive dream-team and produce something so below par. There’s a giggle-inducingly juvenile sex scene resembling bad internet erotic fiction to open, and it doesn’t get any better later on as every other discussion of, or engagement with, subjects of sex is mishandled and unsexy. The already infamous scene of Cameron Diaz having sex with the windscreen of Javier Bardem’s car is described by the Spaniard to Fassbender’s Counsellor as “too gynaecological to be sexy”. It probably was, though we’ve obviously got to use our imaginations. It’s also needless spectacle, adding nothing to the plot beyond shock value, nothing to the characters beyond kinkiness, so in addition to the unavoidable depravity of the act, it’s also too pointless to be sexy.

You should be able to rely on McCarthy to deliver a decent script, but perhaps he should stick to writing novels. The film has such cringe-inducing lines as “the truth has no temperature” somehow delivered completely straight-faced by Diaz. An extended monologue about the flaws and therefore beauty of diamonds should be affecting, but it just comes across as pretentious and dull. The film also has continuous, wholly unnecessary eerie/ambient music used in every important dialogue scene that distracts. We know the characters are in a moral quandary, we don’t need another signpost for this!

The most engaging scene in the film involves the Counsellor actually doing his job of lawyering – he talks to his imprisoned client (Rosie Perez) about what to wear for her hearing and the kind of message about her character it will bring across (better she look like a “businesswoman” than a “school mom”). When the subject shifts to her son, who has also been arrested for speeding, the Counsellor amusingly quips when finding out just how fast he was going on his bike that “206 isn’t a speed, but someone’s weight or the time of day”.

We get a few disturbing images of extreme violence, particularly in two brutal death scenes, but apart from brief snippets of a montage set in a grimy backstreet garage with smoke billowing and sparks flying, you couldn’t guess that Scott directed this at all. He blends into the background, and you don’t hire Scott to blend, you hire him to pummel you with distinctive imagery, and it’s just not here.

I can’t be the only one to ask this, but why can’t Fassbender sort out his accent? He’s great at selling emotional turmoil, and is given further opportunity to do so as the Counsellor is physically, mentally and emotionally worn down, but he can’t seem to maintain his vocals consistently. It’s a recurring problem throughout his career so far, and really needs addressing unless he just wants to be remembered in the same breath as Sean Connery. Javier Bardem plays a hollow cartoon character, and Cameron Diaz’s Malkina – who with her veiled, complex motivations might have been the most interesting in the film – in her hands is vapid, nonthreatening and laughably wooden.

There’s a fundamental flaw with all the characters. Characters of course don’t have to be moral, or even likeable to tie a film together. What they can never be is boring, and every single one of the characters in The Counsellor is boring. They’re driven by lust and greed, but for no tangible reason. We know the Counsellor did something, and we’re meant to just accept that he’s in a bad enough place to think stealing Cartel shipments is worth the risk. Maybe this says something about human nature – some people are just born bad – but it just ends up feeling one-note and without colour. These characters want money, drugs, sex and power…because they do, and no-one changes or develops. There could have been some fascinating character deconstruction here, but no-one cared enough to try it.

Most of the film is bland and uninteresting. What little that isn’t is meaningless, tonally misjudged or just nauseating. The plot feels like it’s building up to something, then when everything finally goes to hell the whole affair becomes scrappy, scattergun and incomprehensible. If I didn’t already know the creative minds behind the film, I’d assume it was made by a first-time director and writer who happened to get really lucky in the casting stakes.

The Counsellor squanders an interesting premise and an interesting cast, ending up as an amateurish, sleazy and boring crime film. It’s one of the worst things Ridley Scott has made, and, putting a single memorable dialogue scene aside, a real blemish on Cormac McCarthy’s name as one of the great modern American writers. It just goes to show that you can be given all the best ingredients and still turn out something unpalatable. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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One Response to Review: The Counsellor (2013)

  1. Pingback: The (Very Very Belated) Worst Films of 2013 List | SSP Thinks Film

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