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The Counselor

Take my advice, please!

The Counselor

Cormac McCarthy is widely regarded as the great American novelist of our time. His work is also very popular, helped no doubt by the success of the film made from his No Country for Old Men.

But anyone who still believes that a talented novelist will automatically be a talented screenwriter (does no one remember the films of Norman Mailer?) has only to look at The Counselor, based on McCarthy’s first original script. It is as brutal, philosophical, and bleak as you would expect from his books. As directed by Ridley Scott, it is also a talky, shapeless, confusing mess.

Watching it reminded me of Billy Wilder’s comment about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experiences in Hollywood. Comparing him to “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job,” Wilder (as good a scriptwriter as Hollywood has ever produced) said, “He did not know how to connect the pipes so the water could flow.”

There’s a lot of water in The Counselor. And it doesn’t so much flow as sit on the screen in big, stagnant pools.

At the center of the story is a successful West Texas lawyer, played by Michael Fassbender. He is only ever referred to as “Counselor,” which I assume is a joke because he never counsels anyone: He never gives advice, only receives it.

He gets advice from Reiner (Javier Bardem in a haircut reminiscent of Al Pacino as Phil Spector), a fabulously successful club owner. Reiner and he are going in on a big drug deal, importing the white stuff from Mexico.

He gets more advice from Westray (Brad Pitt, in a costume modeled after Hank Williams and Gene Autrey, had they been clothed by Armani and Versace). Westray is the middleman between them and the Mexican cartel.

When I say they advise him, I mean that they spend two-thirds of the movie having philosophical conversations. Long, droning, portentous conversations that we assume will eventually lead somewhere. But you know the danger of assuming.

There are women, too. The Counselor has one, Laura (Penelope Cruz), whom he loves and wants to shower with lavish gifts, which is why he needs the money from the drug deal. They have soul-enriching sex and live in spotless white condos. Reiner’s woman, Malkina (Cameron Diaz, clearly hoping for an Oscar nomination), is a former stripper who, he says, is so smart and willful that she scares him. She owns pet cheetahs, dresses in animal print dresses, and has cheetah spots tattooed on her body. Do I need to say that she’s the bad girl?

Some of the endless chatter is funny, as when a horrified Reiner relates a story about Malkina having sex with his car. Not in his car, with it. (Actually it’s only funny until you start wondering whether McCarthy has read too much Freud or if he needs to have been analyzed by him.) Mostly, the talk is not nearly interesting enough to justify all the screen time it consumes.

It barely even qualifies as dialogue, which is talk that establishes characters. Every major character here sounds the same, mouthpieces for the author’s carefully written speeches that seldom have the timbre of actual conversation. Worse, McCarthy breaks the first rule they teach at Screenwriting School: Characters should do things rather than talk about them.

Things finally start to happen in what would be called the third act in a film that actually had a structure. Characters we don’t know show up, there are desert shootouts, and in no time at all we’ve completely lost track of what’s going on. The deal has gone bad, and the Counselor is unjustly held to blame by people we never see but who we are told are very scary.

At this point we would hope that Scott would do what directors are supposed to do and rein things in. He had it pretty easy for most of the movie, with nothing to do other than film conversations in pretty settings. (I didn’t know there was a polo club in West Texas. Then again, Scott shot the Texas scenes in London, so maybe there isn’t.)

No such luck. He loses control of the film completely and it becomes—how can I put this kindly?—an incomprehensible mess. Events whose significance we don’t understand are played out in painstaking detail, while others are left hanging. It finally grinds to a halt with the last surviving character, apparently (but implausibly) an evil mastermind, growling a speech about the nature of mankind that will surely be remembered at next year’s Razzie Awards.

McCarthy’s stated interest in creating a realistic depiction of the drug trade is undercut by his ridiculous fondness for baroque killings that would be more plausible in the hands of, say, the Spanish Inquisition than any respectable cartel killers. When a character early on mentions a device (invented by McCarthy) called a “bolito,” you know it’s only a matter of time before we see one in action. But when we do, in one of the film’s final scenes, it brings the story to a screeching halt while we gawk at the inane horror of it.

The Counselor is missing some material from the original screenplay, so credit Scott for trimming back at least some of McCarthy’s excesses. But even the director’s most fervent admirers are unlikely to put this in a class with Blade Runner or Alien: It barely even rises to the level of GI Jane.

Watch the trailer for The Counselor

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