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The Counselor

Directed by Ridley Scott
Produced by Ridley Scott, Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz, and Nick Wechsler
Written by Cormac McCarthy
With: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Rubén Blades, John Leguizamo, Dean Norris, and Goran Višnjić
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Editing: Pietro Scalia
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Runtime: 117 min
Release Date: 25 October 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

The eighty year-old novelist and playwright Cormac McCarthy has become a hot commodity in a Hollywood obsessed with bleak, apocalyptical stories.  Since the turn of the millennium, filmmakers have been snapping up his titles for movie and TV adaptions with the kind of frequency Steven King’s novels saw in the 80s. The Counselor is McCarthy’s first work written expressly for the big screen.  Unlike King, he has not made the mistake of assuming the role of first-time director as well, but nor did his material find an ideal interpreter in Ridley Scott. Scott seems to be under the impression that he is making an Elmore Leonard picture, with an all-star cast, flashy sets and costumes, and an expansive, colorful palette. But McCarthy’s stories are the opposite of Leonard’s--they’re not fun, and they succeed as films only when a director can effectively capture McCathy’s mix of dark humor, hopelessness and dread in a way that still manages to entertain an audience (as the Coen Brothers did so well in No Country for Old Men).

Personally, I like movies where the characters sit around philosophizing and speak overtly about the things that are inevitably going to happen to them in the next few scenes, but this only works if those next scenes of action are as interesting as the discussion that precedes them. The Counselor has a lot going for it but the storyline is difficult to follow, and McCarthy and Scott really don’t seem to care. Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “The MacGuffin,” as meaning a goal, or an object pursued by a protagonist that, while critically important to him, is not important for the audience to understand in detail.  The entire plot of The Counselor seems like a MacGuffin.  Michael Fassbender plays an honest lawyer whose is pressed by his rich and reckless associate, played by Javier Bardem, to get involved in a one-time deal with a Mexican drug cartel and it all goes badly. The details of the deal and how things go wrong are all in the film, but not effectively connected to each other or to the many characters. The events of the plot are frail skeletal bones on which the filmmakers hang overly meaty scenes. Most of these are literary exchanges of dialogue where A-List actors explore existential ideas, but there are also some truly novel depictions of sex and violence. These stand-alone sequences prevent the picture from being dull, but they also tantalize the viewer with what might have been, had something clearly not gone very wrong during the early stages of this movie’s development.

I was reminded of Robert Towne’s 1988 crime story Tequila Sunrise, while watching The Counselor, but even that overwritten mess of a movie is far more intriguing and stylish than this one. Perhaps the main problem is that, like Towne’s film, The Counselor is trying to be a high-minded meditation on a theme as opposed to just a good story. We get so much more from a tale well told than from high flatulent intentions. The film references (and perhaps gets its title from) Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir masterpiece Body Heat. It is a major mistake to remind an audience of a great film when they are watching a mediocre one.