Movie review: 'The Counselor' flunks its examination

This photo released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Michael Fassbender as the Counselor, and Penelope Cruz, as Laura, in the film, "The Counselor." (AP Photo/Copyright Twentieth Century Fox, Kerry Brown)

“The Counselor”


Chockstone Pictures

1 hour, 57 minutes

As a movie-going experience, this weekend was shaping up to be a perfect storm. Perfect, in this case, being a positive, instead of the more common understanding of the phrase which usually involves visions of Marky Mark and George Clooney drowning off the coast of Nantucket. This week’s movie is “The Counselor,” the new film from one of my favorite directors, Ridley Scott, with a screenplay by Pulitzer prize winner Cormac McCarthy, and featuring a stellar cast including Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, and Cameron Diaz, and taking place in my hometown of El Paso, Texas.

Not only that, but when I arrived at the theater on opening night, who did I find but three of my favorite ex-students, movie-buffs all, who invited me to join them. If any cinematic outing was set up to be a home run, this was it. Little did I know that, by the end of the film, I would wish for a berth on the Andrea Gale.

“The Counselor” is, in a word, terrible. And, though I hate to say it about the man responsible for “No Country for Old Men,” and “All the Pretty Horses,” the blame falls almost entirely on the shoulders of McCarthy. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with a script as clunky and tone-deaf as this, and keep in mind that I just saw “Machete Kills” last week. The actors are doing their best, but the dialogue is herculean in its awfulness and even these talented performers buckle under the weight of it.

The story, purely in terms of an over-arching plot, is interesting, at least. Often, as I tried to reorient myself throughout the film, reminding myself of the basic narrative, I wished that I was watching the film that was described in my head instead of the one playing on the screen. Fassbender is the titular counselor, an El Paso defense attorney who, for reasons never explained, decides to dip into the lucrative world of drug smuggling, aiding his friend and nightclub owner Reiner in some fashion that I never quite understood. Things go wrong, and then as you might expect, things go very, very wrong.

The moral of the story is one of hubris. The counselor thinks he is smarter than he is, thinks he can outsmart or outtalk the Juarez cartel, but is taught a very painful lesson about true viciousness. That is the basic plot, but to get there we are forced to wind through numerous and complicated plot twists, and suffer through one scene of mind-numbingly bad dialogue after another. It’s the kind of dialogue that must sound better on the page than coming out of the mouth of an actor. Most of the conversations involve Bardem and Fassbender, and I felt terrible for them both.

As the speeches got longer and longer, usually centering around discussions of how confusing women are, and often using words like “heretofore,” you could see the actors at a loss for what to do with themselves. Several times, for no reason at all, Bardem would find himself crossing the room to flop awkwardly on a couch. Brad Pitt spends most of the movie taking off or putting on a ridiculous cowboy hat. It was like watching high school improv. Fassbender, as an almost completely neutral character, has little to do but listen and look concerned, until the end when he finally gets to do some real acting, but by then it was too late.

Worst of all, however, is Cameron Diaz, which brings up another big issue with the film.

Though I wouldn’t characterize “The Counselor” as misogynist, it definitely suggests that its author has a low opinion of women. The two main female characters, Diaz and the Counselor’s fiance, played by Penelope Cruz, are opposite ends of the spectrum, though neither is particularly admirable. Cruz is too innocent, too naive, and, though it sounds unkind, too stupid to be believed.

Diaz, on the other hand, is essentially playing a predatory animal — a familiar to her pet Cheetahs which she takes out into the desert to hunt jackrabbits on occasion. She is harsh, cruel, and depraved, as evidenced by one of her major scenes — an episode that even attempting to describe would be pointless in the pages of a family newspaper. The film, though it contains no actual nudity that I can remember, is graphically sexual. And this too, is not in a good way, but in the squirmy, nausea-inducing way that can only come from a combination of clunky, unnecessarily descriptive dialogue, extreme close-ups during way too intimate acts, and watching all of the previous alongside three young adults who know you primarily as a former English teacher.

Often confusing, meandering, uncomfortable, and pointless as it is, you’d think Scott and Co., would at least give us a character to root for — someone to anchor us in this howling, pitching mess. But you’d be wrong. The characters, aside from Cruz’s, who inspires contempt for being so weak and ineffectual, are all unabashedly loathsome in their complete and utter disregard for their fellow human beings. McCarthy’s characters are often described as nihilistic, and “The Counselor” fits that bill.

Despite getting low ratings across the board, I did read a defense of “The Counselor” today by a critic that describes it as a misunderstood masterpiece that “doesn’t want to be liked.” What a crock. There’s no deep, subversive art here — it’s just a very bad movie by some very good filmmakers. It happens — rarely this profoundly, but it happens. Chalk it up to a lesson learned and maybe we can all go about our business as if this never happened.

Grade: D-

“The Counselor” is rated R for graphic violence, graphic sexuality, and pervasive language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.