Seedy drug-traffickers. Sexy femme fatales. Colorful underworld kingpins who usually only exist on the pages of a pulpy screenplay. A not-so-innocent everyman forced to make questionable moral decisions when he finds himself trapped between the proverbial rock-and-a-hard-place.
On the surface, The Counselor has all the ingredients of a traditional Tony Scott film, and not one helmed by the late director’s older sibling. The somewhat-sophisticated Sir Ridley Scott favors larger-scale epics (think Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven), and hasn’t worked with something as compact as The Counselor since 2006’s A Good Year, … where he also tried to bolster a thin premise with eye-catching, frivolous distractions.
There are good things in The Counselor, but The Counselor is not a good film. I’m more interested in the individuals responsible for the movie than I am in the movie they’ve created. Scott and a high-powered ensemble operate from the first original screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright. They cook up a recognizable crime story about a nondescript lawyer (played by Michael Fassbender) who doesn’t even earn a name and is only called “Counselor” by every low-life he allows into his inner circle.
Desperate for cash (for reasons I’m not certain we ever learn), the counselor agrees to buy into a potentially lucrative drug-trafficking deal. Unpredictable criminal Reiner (Javier Bardem) alerts the attorney to a major shipment being transported across the Mexican border to be distributed throughout Texas. Through a knowledgeable middle man (played by Brad Pitt), the counselor contributes a sizable investment, hoping to make millions in return. The counselor dreams of a happier life with his new fiancé (Penelope Cruz). Sadly, as is the case in these types of crime stories, everything that can go wrong does, and all players suddenly find themselves painted into multiple, deadly corners.
The Counselor is confusing by design. Almost everyone in the film is being double-crossed, and I felt two steps behind the overly confusing plot while patiently waiting for crucial pieces to snap into place. Maybe I’m an idiot. I’ve actually been told by a few trustworthy colleagues that The Counselor clears up on a second viewing.
But should that be the case? Crisscrossing crime thrillers like this demand air-tight execution. The Counselor doesn’t manage that. New characters show up on a regular basis, delivering chunks of exposition (and healthy doses of obvious foreshadowing) without ever explaining their identity or how they factor into the overall scheme. Little pinpricks of confusion dot Scott’s landscape, raising questions here and there that aren’t answered by McCarthy or the film. There is, however, one glaring subplot involving Rosie Perez and her motorcycle-riding son that’s so ill-conceived, it threatens to torch the entire film. It immediately calls to mind a spectacular quote from the script, delivered with laconical menace by Pitt’s underused character: "[My associates] don't believe in coincidences. They've heard of them, they've just never seen one."
McCarthy’s violent screenplay might have made for a compelling book. He crafts lengthy, colorful and downright nasty scenes that end up having little to no impact on the overall story – as when Cameron Diaz’s mysterious character provocatively gyrates without underwear on Bardem’s windshield, or any time an unidentified character spends chunks of time reminding Fassbender of the dire nature of the situation in which he has placed himself. Ironically, it was the economic lack of showy dialogue that helped ratchet up the tension in previous adaptations of McCarthy’s prize-winning novels The Road and No Country for Old Men. Here, the playwright allows his characters some freedom to be verbose. They bore us with McCarthy’s prose – something I didn’t think possible.
The Counselor defines the term “a mixed bag.” There are qualities to admire, but not enough to lead to an outright recommendation. It’s competent enough not to slam it, but too confusing to fully embrace. You can easily understand why everyone on screen (and behind the scenes) wanted to be involved with a project of this pedigree. But by the time you figure out exactly where The Counselor went wrong, everyone involved will have moved on to bigger, better endeavors.