When The Counselor has one of these things (or both in conjunction, as is often the case in a film where one will lead to the other somewhere down the line) on its mind, the film has a kick of Tabasco in it that, when it ruminates on just anything else, its barely-there plot most of all, it most certainly lacks.
When The Counselor portrays — not talks about, in the florid, philosophical, “who actually talks like that?” way that Cormac McCarthy characters pontificate (someone says, I kid you not, “donnybrook” and “chaps” in the same scene), but actually portrays — one of these things; when Cameron Diaz lifts up her dress and humps a convertible (yes, you read that right and I can’t believe I wrote it), or when two of the world’s most beautiful people, Penelope Cruz and Michael Fassbender, have a tête-à-tête and more beneath the whitest set of sheets you ever will see, or when heads (plural) roll (literal)… the film is even captivating. Thrilling. Perversely sexual and dangerously grotesque in an urgent and not-unpleasant way.
And when the two work in concert, the talking about, courtesy of screenwriter McCarthy, and the showing, courtesy of director Ridley Scott, we get master-class filmmaking, filmmaking that sticks.
Unfortunately, that only happens once, and once is far too few times to substantiate the drug-caper-gone-wrong story that surrounds that once: that scene in which Reiner (Javier Bardem in fine, jocular form), for reasons even he does not understand (the real reason being that in McCarthy’s world, no one can, for more than two seconds, shut up), tells the Counselor (Fassbender) at great length that he is haunted by an incident that was, for him, “too gynecological.” There it is, right there, the brilliance we might expect from so many luminaries of the form gathered together, Scott and McCarthy and Fassbender and Bardem and Diaz. Everywhere else, that pop is sorely lacking.
One line in particular — a line which, like so many, might look good in Chapter 10 of a McCarthy novel and sounds delirious coming out of the mouth of a living, breathing human being, meaning the sentiment itself might be brilliant or utter trash — captures this film’s beneficial relationship with luridness and disastrous relationship with everything else: “Life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting.”
In bed (or on windshields) The Counselor is alive. Vital. Outside of the white satin cocoon of coitus in which Fassbender and Cruz begin the story, all is dead and barren. Diaz especially is lost in this world, withering all in the movie she touches, every line, every scene, and, since the plot hinges on her, every thought that says “What the hell is going on here?”
Now look, no one handles McCarthy’s labyrinthine non-sequiturs particularly well (Brad Pitt gets one or two lines off beautifully, for instance, and the others sink into the muck of so many warnings of moral murkiness and impending doom), but Diaz, from the moment she opens her mouth, seems uncomfortably and unintentionally foreign even in a film in which everyone but Cruz’s grounded wife (so grounded it seems like there must be something more there until there… isn’t) sounds like they’re talking through a thesaurus. The script indicates Diaz’s Malkina is from Barbados, hence some of the character’s formality of speech, but she may as well be from Venus for how inhuman, how dripping with portent and foreshadowing, her dialogue and demeanor is. Malkina, a genius/provocateur dressed in animal print, tattooed with animal print, possessing actual cheetahs covered in the stuff if you didn’t get the predatory idea already, is someone who could only be written. And she is not written well.
It’s clear she is doing something smart and shady in the background, but what that is might be unclear to everyone but McCarthy. Even the director and actors never seemed to be let in on the secret of what actually happens in The Counselor besides the vaguest outline of everyone buying into a big deal and then that deal turning sour, after which grave consequences must follow. The consequences are fun, as are watching the characters deal with their inevitability, but even a modicum of a hint as to how or why any of this is happening might have been helpful. Exposition can be a drag, and if you’ve ever sought a film utterly free of it, I present to you The Counselor, but I propose that, when dealing with elaborate criminal schemes, it is a boon if done at all, and a triumph if done interestingly. And it’s not like cutting exposition made the film any less wordy. Instead characters talk about everything but what’s going on that is creating such life and death stakes.
All these insufficiently drawn thugs and masterminds talk around each other in circles as the counselor (he is addressed only as the counselor in reference to his occupation) does everything but counsel. Instead everyone counsels him. Everyone has a story to tell him. And when they are done telling it, they tell another. This is a talky, talky, talky film, and the talk lacks the zip and verve (and ultimately meaning, though the notion that all the discussion of grief and impending death in The Counselor ties into the recent suicide of Ridley Scott’s brother Tony makes me hesitant to say that, though I’ll say it anyway) that would make such an arrangement tenable. The film clearly wants to be, in spite of Scott’s and McCarthy’s noblest intentions, a grimy crime thriller, not a salon, and when a tight wire gives the film a chance to be that after what feels like fifteen circuitous gabfests about morals and fate, something snaps into place. And then that something dislocates immediately afterwards as the film settles back to its status quo — two people, talking at, and not to, each other.
If the whole film were sex and violence, it would be a tawdry but potentially valid affair (Machete, in spite of being a lark, probably says more than The Counselor about all the things The Counselor is saying things about, from immigration to grief to accepting death), but as things are – split down the middle, caught between tawdriness and stifling solemnity — we are left with not the disaster some are bemoaning but a pretty big mess all the same. “One or the other” could have been one way of cleaning up the mess, but considering what we see here, it’s fair to say which path better suits the assembled talent. And as cathartic as the solemnity may be, it’s the not the path that involves seminars on grief delivered by drug kingpins. It’s the path that involves beheadings.
I’m not telling you to not see The Counselor. Like Spring Breakers, I think it’s worth it for its audacity and perversity alone, even if the film indulges in this seedier side far too little.
I am telling that if you do see The Counselor, expect to find yourself more than once in same shoes as the restaurant owner who, towards the film’s end, finds himself caught on the listening end of one of McCarthy’s probably-better-on-the-page clunkers.
He looks on baffled as this word mush comes bubbling out of the human across from him, and summons all the brevity McCarthy can stand.
Exactly, dude. Exactly.