(Photo : 20th Century Fox)
With a star-studded cast that includes the likes of Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt, Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" is one of the most anticipated films of the year. Throw in the authorship of Cormac McCarthy and there should be no doubt that this film is slated to be one of the best that 2013 has to offer, right? While the individual talent cannot be denied, the pieces never quite come together in one of the most disappointing films in years.
Fassbender plays the title character, a legal advisor who is looking to get into the drug business to overcome what he briefly refers to as "money issues." He is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) and is close friends with a drug kingpin Reiner (Bardem) and is constantly warned of the dangers coming his way if the deal fails. The story also introduces Malkina (Diaz), Reiner's crazy girlfriend, and Westray (Pitt), the Counselor's murky associate. When the deal goes wrong, the Counselor is forced to try and find a way to save his life and that of his beloved Laura.
The plot seems simple enough, but McCarthy manages to blur the line between minimalism and exaggeration. For starters, the film is one dialogue scene after another. With minimal exceptions, Scott and company cut from one interaction of talking heads to another, oftentimes with awkward transitions. In some moments McCarthy has the characters imply the drama with minimal words; one example would be a well-directed scene between Laura and the Counselor in which he proposes. The performances of Cruz and Fassbender tell the viewer everything that needs to be said about the relationship. The dialogue is sparse and McCarthy does not even let the Counselor utter the four magical words of every proposal. Another such scene features the Counselor talking to another legal advisor that he hopes will get him out of trouble. This exchange is equally brief and the dialogue, while vague, tells the viewer everything he really needs to know to get the idea of what it happening. Sometimes this technique shoots itself in the foot as the characters repeatedly answer questions with equally vague statements. In one scene, Reiner and the Counselor discuss their next moves. The Counselor repeatedly utters "I don't know" and Reiner also responds with "I don't know" when asked what happens next. These instances prove frustrating with their redundancy and even come off as unintentionally comical and silly.
Those hoping for more information from their dialogue may become frustrated by McCarthy's decision to indulge in the opposite extreme and subject viewers to extremely lengthy discussions about love, sex, life, death, greed, etc. in nearly every scene in the film. The characters will engage in some discussion that moves the plot forward before one character will decide to engage in a philosophical monologue or discourse of some sort. Some of the ideas are riveting, but they belong in a novel where the author can discuss the character's innermost thoughts. The writing is often beautifully descriptive, but it is not dialogue and sounds extremely unnatural in the context of a film.
McCarthy, being the genius that he is, does deserve notable mentions for something that he includes and does not include. Unlike most American films about drug lords and cartels, McCarthy's script does not revert to the usual stereotyping of Mexicans or the culture. That is enough reason for applause. The violence of the culture is present and brutal, but it is restrained throughout.
The characters themselves are not particularly layered and serve merely as symbols. Laura and Malkina are the opposites of the woman - one is the "corrupted" Virgin Mary, the other is the embodiment of Eve with her will to power and seduction. Their wardrobes alone help to describe their qualities. The simplicity of Laura is counteracted by the extravagance (which includes a cheetah pattern tattoo and golden tooth) of Malkina. Early versions of the script made a stronger connection between the two and their relationships with the Counselor, but the film completely destroys the connection between the title character and Malkina. The Counselor himself seems to be a cautionary symbol for every human being thinking about entering the world of drug trafficking. He is cocky initially, but soon realizes that he is in-over-his-head with no way out. His attempts at survival are futile and the film itself moves toward a rather anti-climactic finish with the ending never in doubt. Reinor is the embodiment of the Mexican drug lord and his lavish lifestyle, while Westray is the embodiment of American greed and possibly, in McCarthy's eyes, its foolishness. As a parable, this works well, but only on a purely cerebral level. A conversation on "The Counselor" could potentially lead to interesting discussion, but the actual experience of watching the film is laborious and uninteresting simply because the characters themselves mean little or nothing to the viewer.
Scott's direction of the film is stale as can be. The film jumps from scene to scene with a sterile quality that makes it feel like it is rinsing and repeating the same structure constantly. Some scenes, while unique, feel out of place in the film. Nowhere is this more evident than in a church scene in which Malkina makes a confession about her sex life... actually she never actually makes that confession. While the scene seems to showcase her chaotic nature and her attempts to subvert Laura and her purity, the connection is lost simply because the characters have no real relationship outside of one interaction early in the film.
The second storyline, which features a truck and "The Green Hornet," is awkwardly paced at the start of the film as Scott rarely showcases brief glimpses of the story without enabling the viewer enough time to process the moments. It almost feels like filler to create some sort of relief from all the talking and never quite builds the suspense that Scott wants the viewer to feel.
The music by Daniel Pemberton is awkwardly employed as it intrudes on dialogue scenes in hopes of imbuing them with the appropriate emotions; almost as if Scott knows that the dialogue is getting a bit long and some sort of "emotional" spark is needed to keep the viewer engaged.
The actors all deserve high marks for doing their best with the material. Fassbender has a terrific moment near the end of the film while Bardem steals every scene he is in. Cruz's Laura feels rather generic, though she does give a touching turn during the proposal scene; her eyes light upon the receipt of the ring and the growing tears of happiness make it impossible to not feel her happiness. Diaz has sex with a car, but she seems rather stiff and serious throughout. The venomous demon never really bursts out the way one would hope.
The film had all the ingredients to be a classic, and for many it will be. But the lack of suspense, coupled with the often didactic discourses and uninteresting characters makes "The Counselor" one of the biggest busts of 2013.