Cormac McCarthy is arguably America’s greatest living writer, a restless chronicler of human suffering with a gift for distilling art from atrocity. Ridley Scott is a celebrated filmmaker responsible for hard-edged masterpieces such as Blade Runner and the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. So when it was announced that Scott would be adapting McCarthy’s first original screenplay (not counting an episode of 1977’s PBS-produced The Gardener’s Son) with the aid of a formidable cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Penélope Cruz, expectations promptly hit the stratosphere.
The result of this white-hot convergence of talent, The Counselor ultimately fails to live up to its own daunting pedigree and falls on the sword of its own self-importance. That shouldn’t discourage viewers from seeking out this bloodstained gem of a movie, however, which features, among other things: a pair of domesticated cheetahs, an encounter between Cameron Diaz and the windshield of a Ferrari that brings new meaning to the word “autoerotic,” a welcome cameo from Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris and the most aberrant, shocking bouts of violence Scott has put to screen since the infamous “chestburster” sequence in the original Alien.
Equal parts crime thriller and existential nightmare, the film revolves around the eponymous Counselor (Fassbender, playing little more than a well-groomed cipher), a fresh-faced attorney looking to provide for his new fiancée (Cruz) with the profits from a drug deal involving his friend and local nightclub owner Reiner (Javier Bardem). This is the young lawyer’s first dalliance with organized crime, so he seeks out the wisdom of Westray (Brad Pitt), the slick, paranoid middleman with an escape plan for every occasion. This attracts the attention of Reiner’s scheming moll Malkina (Diaz), who has another, infinitely more sinister agenda in mind.
Bardem, who terrified audiences as the monotoned angel of death Anton Chigurh in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, is nearly unrecognizable as the spiky-haired, garishly dressed Reiner. Pitt, a character actor tragically trapped in a leading man’s body, seems equally on-point as Westray, a self-conscious country club cowboy who mutters darkly about the cartel using automatic garrotes made from “unholy alloys.”
It’s Diaz, however, who nearly ends up walking away with the whole damn movie. Her Malkina, clad in Bond villainess attire and sporting tattooed cheetah spots to advertise her predatory nature, is a creature far more ferocious and unpredictable than the furry African imports she keeps on diamond-studded leashes. It’s strangely liberating to watch the star of so many safe, forgettable romantic comedies unfurl her freak flag with such Machiavellian gusto. If the film surrounding her had been stronger, Diaz could have found herself an awards season contender for her uncharacteristically nasty, boundary-pushing performance.
Like every Ridley Scott film, The Counselor is a visual treat. Under the practiced eye of director of photography Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus), the sun-scorched vistas of El Paso, Texas quickly transform into a vast, purgatorial wasteland of the soul. Viewers will be forgiven for having the occasional Breaking Bad flashback, especially during a scene involving a semitruck heist and several magnificently choreographed desert shootouts.
Aside from sadly short-lived appearances from Bruno Ganz, John Leguizamo and a host of other fine character actors, The Counselor’s greatest failing is ironically what was supposed to be its biggest draw: McCarthy’s chatty, elliptically plotted script. Much of the dialogue, even the exchanges that probably read beautifully on the page, sounds like a Gordian knot of moral and philosophical bloviating when spoken aloud, even by a brilliant, Oscar-winning performer such as Bardem.
Adapting McCarthy’s spare, lyrical style for the screen has always been a challenge, even for the author himself. No Country for Old Men, which took home four Oscars in 2008, began its life as an unfinished screenplay that McCarthy retrofitted into a novel in order to avoid scrapping the story alogether. John Hillcoat and Joe Penhall’s adaptation of The Road followed the book’s uncompromisingly bleak vision to the letter and paid for it with a disappointing box office haul. Billy Bob Thornton and Ted Tally’s version of All the Pretty Horses, meanwhile, was critically savaged for deviating too far from the source material, turning McCarthy’s attempt at rugged romanticism into watered-down schmaltz.
Scott was long considered the frontrunner to helm the adaptation of McCarthy’s magnum opus, the notoriously “unfilmmable” western epic Blood Meridian. Based on the shortcomings of The Counselor, it’s no longer clear if he’s the man for the job. There was a point when Scott could’ve claimed the material without taming its savage, heretical spirit, but that time may have passed.
The Counselor, a relatively light tale, at least by McCarthy standards, should have been a quick and dirty delight. Instead, the film is little more than an overwrought dime store novel elevated by a few entertaining performances and an admirable go-for-broke ending. Oh well. At least the sight of a huckster lawyer attempting to outsmart the cartel will give viewers cause to think of Breaking Bad’s forthcoming Better Call Saul spin-off and smile.
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