“The Counselor” *** (out of 5)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt
Written by: Cormac McCarthy
Directed by: Ridley Scott
**SPOILER ALERT (some spoilers may be in the review)**
From time to time, it’s a treat to skip the pageantry of blockbuster films, kid-fare, and 3D gimmickry to see an ‘adult’ movie. I’m not referring to a skin flick at all, but rather the type of film that requires mature sensibilities and the use of my critical thinking skills. With Cormac McCarthy scripting, and Ridley Scott directing, it was a virtual certainty that “The Counselor” would fit that profile and sate my desires. Make no mistake, this is an adult film, and one of the more serious, unforgiving films you’ll ever see. Occasionally it brings the film down- just not all the way.
The strengths of the film are in the performances. ‘The Counselor’ himself (we never hear his name) is played with a slight touch of naiveté by Michael Fassbender, in a performance that shows me again that there is no role he cannot inhabit with ease. Penelope Cruz is not on-screen a great deal, but she’s so likable in her limited scenes it’s hard not to be invested in what comes of her character. Her real-life husband Javier Bardem is typically chameleonic in his turn as a drug dealer/night club owner, channeling Vincent Vega and apparently Guy Fieri. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is the quality of Cameron Diaz’s performance. I’m always hesitant when I see her name in the credits, for she’s stuck with a voice that always has a tint of non-chalant sorority girl in it. This time around, she inhabits a character that’s so ‘dirty’ (gold tooth-dirty) and seemingly trampy that her character’s real ties and abilities are well-hidden. She’s well cast in that way- the woman who could just be the ‘bimbo’, but in actuality is a well-honed predator who’s simply sharpening her claws with every scene.
Writer Cormac McCarthy, the author responsible for stories like “No Country For Old Men” and “The Road”, is a master at taking simple situations or simple characters and making them complicated. With his first orignal screenplay, he stays true to form. It’s interesting to note that in all three films mentioned here, he writes characters that have clear choices in front of them, but they make the wrong one, and spend the rest of the film trying to alter the inevitable, terrible fate that awaits them. “The Road” offered a hopeful ending, as unfortunate as it was, and “No Country’ at least offered the audience the grim satisfaction of maiming the ‘bad guy’ and throwing off his path of destruction.
“The Counselor” does not have any interest in such nuance. Characters make poor decisions, and face grim consequences. I certainly appreciate that McCarthy doesn’t allow our characters to make these decisions without consequences, but it sure does make for a depressing expose on film. I liked the counselor and his girl (Cruz) and Reiner (Bardem), but as Yoda once said, “If once you start on the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”, and it’s appropriate that our favorites suffer as a result of that. The movie goes to great lengths to remind us of this- in fact, towards the end of the film, there is a character whose sole purpose is to spell it out for our main character. Again, it makes sense and is plenty satisfying, but at the same time brings with it an emptiness that only a depressing narrative can do.
I’ve never seen any of the ‘Final Destination’ films, but what I gathered from watching trailers was that there was no escape from the character’s fates. We all know they’re going to perish, for no one can escape death. “The Counselor” has the same idea, albeit with a far better cast and the slickest of ‘sheens’ you can imagine, courtesy of Ridley Scott (no one working today makes a better ‘looking’ film). Brad Pitt’s ‘broker’ character tries so hard to escape the inevitable that the movie comes dangerously close to beating us over the head with its’ morality. This not a bad film by any means, but it’s also not a great film; it’s simply well-made and efficiently written, and tells us all not to do stupid things, or at least to not be shocked when bad things happen after making stupid decisions. There’s a better film here within the current framework that isn’t quite so bleak, that feeds more off the energy of Cameron Diaz’s character, and perhaps doesn’t limit itself to a simple, albeit effective morality play.