The Counselor

I feel like I should have learned something from The Counselor. It contains far more dialogue than the trailers are letting on and most of that dialogue is smart, sharp, and purposeful. So, I find myself asking, why have I been left so intellectually blank? I think it might be because in just a single viewing, The Counselor is too much. Its plot is basic enough even without any real exposition, and what little of that there is drowns in this insightful dialogue about the human condition — except that’s all over the place, meaning you have to focus and take in too many points. None of them stick.

The overall plot is basic enough. A lawyer (Michael Fassbender), referred to only as “the Counselor,” decides, out of greed, to try out drug trafficking. He’s only using it as an investment — he puts money in and assuming everything goes right, he gets an exorbitant amount back at a later date — and doesn’t plan on getting his hands dirty at all. He now has a wife (Penélope Cruz) and perhaps she provides some motivation as to why he wants more money. In this venture, he’s joined by a couple of veterans in the business, Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). Reiner also has a girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who may or may not have her own agenda.

That’s the general idea. These three men attempt to finance a smuggle operation, and at one point things go wrong. They then have to deal with the consequences. If the film has one constant idea, it’s the exploration of the consequences of one’s actions, and maybe a condemnation of greed. There’s far more to be gleaned from it, but on a single viewing you’re going to be hard-pressed to get more out of it. This is the type of film that a student of the medium would re-watch several times to try to figure out if it’s all meaningless, pseudo-intellectual babble or if it all has a point. The pause and rewind buttons would get lots of use.

What I will say at this point is that the film is not terribly thrilling and for all its smart dialogue it will bore a lot of people. These are all interesting, rich characters, but they all speak in ways that do not sound human, as if their lines were being written by someone unaware of how people communicate. They lose credibility and when the film is almost exclusively them talking, it’s tough to sit through its two hours.

I say this with full knowledge that the screenplay was written by Cormac McCarthy, one of the greatest living American authors. While his works have been adapted to the screen by others in the past, this is the first time he’s written something with the sole intention of it becoming a feature film. And, meaning no disrespect, I don’t think he quite got it. Make no mistake, the film is filled with interesting ideas and concepts, but few of them are given enough time to stick in the mind of the viewer and without almost any exposition, the plot kind of gets lost in the shuffle. It’s needlessly confusing and is far too often forgotten about so two good actors (or a good actor and Cameron Diaz) can talk about whatever idea McCarthy wanted to convey in that particular scene.

Or, perhaps — given that this is a film directed by Ridley Scott — the version of The Counselor hitting theaters is a butchered one. That’s happened before with Scott’s films, and it could very well be the case that once it hits home video, The Counselor could have another 30 minutes added to it in order to make it clearer and help reinforce some of its main points. Here’s hoping.

There are also a couple of scenes of shocking violence. You get a couple of deaths and they are bloody. The plot, what little of it there is, contains a couple of twists that you’ll only not see coming if you’ve fallen asleep by the time they occur. And that’s even with the muddled method the story is presented to us.

Some actors are able to deliver dialogue like this and make it believable, thus carrying the movie. Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt are such actors. What a talented cast the filmmakers assembled for this film. And the actors I just named all turn in fine work. Fassbender in particular turns in what is just another strong performance in what’s becoming a large list of them, and considering so much of the talking involves his character, that’s crucial.

I took a cheap shot at Cameron Diaz earlier and while that might be a bit harsh it’s also true, especially in a film like this where much of the plot rests on her character. She’s supposed to be this calculating, manipulative, scheming woman. And when she doesn’t have to talk, Diaz is fine for that. But she can’t deliver the philosophical-heavy dialogue without it sounding hilariously awful. She was miscast.

The Counselor is the type of film that demands multiple viewings, just so that you can get your head around exactly what’s being said, the importance of that dialogue, and how it relates to everything else (if it even does). It will benefit from home video, where pausing, rewinding, and jotting down particular lines will aid in understanding. It’s not action-packed, it’s not thrilling, and it’s far too unfocused with its philosophical perspectives to work well on a single viewing. It’s never truly dull due to its intelligence and interesting characters, but it’s a really tough film to recommend. Consider me of very mixed opinion until we find out if a longer, more comprehensive version will hit store shelves in the months to come.

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