I don’t make a habit out of writing about films that I didn’t like. Everyone has their own taste, and there are few pieces of media that can achieve universal acclaim. You can exhaustively deconstruct something that you don’t like, and at the end of the day those on the other side of the fence will scarcely bat an eyelash and continue to watch in enjoyment. With all of that out of the way, occasionally you will run across a film that misses the mark so profoundly, squanders its potential so monumentally that to merely dismiss it without even considering what happened seems too easy. Today I want to talk about The Counselor.
Let me pitch you a film. It’s a new film by director Ridley Scott. Yes, the director of Alien, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. Sure, Prometheus was a bit of a fumble, but he certainly has good faith to burn. His latest film is going to be a modern day crime noir, a borderland tale of drug smugglers, shady businessmen, and Mexican cartels. Yes, very topical, good. Oh, and the story comes from none other than Cormac McCarthy. That’s incredible! His works have already been translated into some excellent films like No Country For Old Men and The Road. What if I told you this would be his first time tackling a screenplay rather than having someone else adapt his work? I know, how exciting. Of course, you would need some first-class actors on board to really bring everything together. How about Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt? I agree, that is a stellar line-up. Okay, I’m sold. How can we possibly sum up the end result? Here you go.
Click above for two excellent novels and film adaptations of McCarthy’s works.
It may be unfair to place the blame of a movie’s failure on one person, but in this case most of the problems stem from Cormac McCarthy’s script. I love McCarthy’s fiction, and my dislike of The Counselor does not come from an unfamiliarity with his tone. McCarthy’s characters almost always have an iconic stoicism and philosophical bent to them. In his novels you often get a very cynical, unflinchingly nihilistic view of the world that goes deeper than that of your average crime story. In The Counselor the characters are chatty, and while this is not inherently bad, every character has the exact same voice. This serves to reduce the characters to mouthpieces for philosophical concepts, instead of, you know, characters.
This also turns every long-winded conversation into an opportunity to introduce later plot elements that seem shoehorned in because there was no more elegant way to introduce them. This is Chekhov’s gun show. For those unfamiliar with the concept, “Chekhov’s gun” refers to a trope referenced by the Russian playwright which states that good writing should eschew introducing plot elements that go nowhere, and more specifically that things introduced in earlier acts should bear out some consequence later in the story. More specifically, if you show a gun hanging on the wall, that gun must go off at some point; otherwise, there is no need to include it. And so, many conversations in this movie seem to introduce concepts, apropos of nothing, solely to give context to later plot developments.
When Bardem explains to Fassbender in great detail what a bolito is, that is, a mechanical noose that tightens razor wire around the neck of those unfortunate enough to be wearing it, it seems like such a ham-handed way to introduce it to the audience. It would be more effective to only introduce this device in the scene that it is used and leave it up to the audience to marvel at this gruesome contraption that seems straight out of the Saw franchise. This is not the only example in the movie, but it serves to illustrate that the film can do little but string itself together with clumsy foreshadowing. Of course, this is nothing compared to the way that McCarthy treats symbolism, but I’ll address that later on.
In some ways, the film’s plot treads much of the same ground as his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men and the Coen brother’s film adaptation. The film version begins with the protagonist Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin in the film), your blank slate everyman of indeterminate moral fiber happening upon a drug deal gone wrong in the desert. He recovers a large sum of money, and spends a majority of the remainder of the story trying to untangle himself from the complications of that action, including avoiding a sinister assassin named Anton Chigurh who wields a captive bolt pistol and a twisted view of morality and fate (played with sinister excellence by Bardem).
Where the Coen’s adaptation of McCarthy’s novel succeeds and Ridley’s collaboration with McCarthy fails is that No Country for Old Men is a highly effective thriller. The protagonist is on the run, and there are several highly effective scenes where he is inches away from death. This is layered over the meta-commentary on justice examined through the character of the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who is two steps behind in solving the murders and it amounts to an exciting crime thriller that still has a cerebral edge to it. The Counselor lacks the tension to keep you invested, and it’s biting commentary is de-fanged without a better story to build upon. This is a shame because if there’s one thing that Ridley Scott can do, it’s direct a competent action scene. When the few scenes of action do happen they are well executed, but much of this is peripheral to the protagonist, and so the tension is not carried through the narrative in a way that has nearly the same impact. Where Llewellyn is suddenly thrust into the role of the quarry, the Counselor (he is never given a proper name) is left to watch his poor decisions and twists of fate spell the end of all those around him.
This is a great time to address the symbolism that McCarthy tries to employ. Perhaps because this is the first time where McCarthy is consciously aiming for a visual medium with his script, he felt the need to beat the proverbial dead horse. Perhaps it was Scott’s choice to highlight it; no one can be sure. In No Country for Old Men, before he happens upon the money, Llewellyn Moss is shown hunting pronghorn antelope. We are introduced to him as the hunter, an ironic twist as he soon becomes the hunted. A bit cliched, sure, but it’s a nice touch that is there for those who notice, but not crucial for those who don’t. In The Counselor, Cameron Diaz plays Malkina, sociopathic socialite and girlfriend of Reiner (Bardem). Malkina is a predator who can’t be satiated, and the audience needs to be made aware of this. Repeatedly. She is shown atop a horse watching her pet cheetahs chase down jackrabbits. She is shown to have cheetah print tattoos. Her name is derived from the grimalkin, a sort of feline spirit often aligned with evil and witches. Even after she is shown to care nothing for all those around her, consuming their lives in order to gain more wealth, she accepts an invitation to dinner and knowingly quips, “I’m famished,” the sort of self-aware nudging to the audience that feels like the filmmakers are there going, “Get it? Get it?” It doesn’t help that Diaz doesn’t have the chops to pull of the role. You can imagine someone playing this role like Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives and relishing the predatory opulence of Malkina’s life, but what we get is little more than a cartoonish sketch of a character.
As a character, the Counselor comes off no better. He doesn’t even get a name, but instead is a concept, a role reversal that seems far more unsubtle that the hunter becoming the hunted. The irony is that everyone he talks to, even those who have already struck it rich from drug deals, are counseling him, urging him that it is too dangerous and that he risks nearly everything by involving himself in the trade. The only really humanizing thing about this character is his love for his fiance (Penelope Cruz), but when we watch everything go south for him, it’s hard to say anything but, “Sorry you’re incapable of recognizing the heaps of foreshadowing you’ve been tripping over for the past hour.” What are we even left with as an audience? We can’t really sympathize with or pity the foolish protagonist, we can’t even delight in the cardboard villains, we aren’t taken on a thrill ride, and the film’s philosophies about greed and evil are trite, overlong, and nowhere near transcendent.
Many of the positive reviews I’ve read of this film, some of them even glowing like this New York Times piece, tend to state that those who dislike will probably be averse to the bleak tone of McCarthy’s universe or films that expect more participation from their audience on a cerebral level. I’m on board for either, but The Counselor still manages to be a mess that grasps for profundity and instead arrives at impotence. I’m up for whatever McCarthy writes next, but I’m hoping it’s another novel.
Please, feel free to disagree with me. I’d love to see some comments from those who enjoyed this film. Are there other authors turned screenwriters who have been more successful? Let us know in the comments below!