The Counselor (2013)
“Sin Is A Choice.”
The Counselor (2013)
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Synopsis: A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.
Early on in The Counselor, an experienced criminal and a lawyer refer to a quote from a well-known neo-Noir movie which provides a clue to the ultimate direction in which their story is headed. They seem like a throwaway couple of lines of little significance, but The Counselor is one of those movies in which every line, every word, is spoken for a very specific reason. But, while there’s a very definite purpose to each scene, screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s oblique approach means we sometimes feel as if we are being bombarded with puzzles rather than a coherent narrative. The film is the 80-year-old McCarthy’s first screenwriting credit, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s an adaptation of a novel which we’re all expected to have read before watching the movie.
It’s a Ridley Scott movie so, although his choice of projects might have been a tad shaky of late, you can be sure that the direction will not be a weakness. He directs a quality cast. Michael Fassbender (Shame, Haywire) is the Counselor, a charming man whose certainty of his place in the world provides him with the misplaced confidence that will ultimately lead to his undoing. His fiancé, played with winning modesty by Penelope Cruz (Blow), knows nothing of his cash flow problems, or his scheme to finance a drugs deal in order to ease them. Nightclub owner Reiner (an eye-catching performance from Javier Bardem – Skyfall) is his partner in the deal. He dresses flamboyantly and has an eccentric hairstyle – each of which should be reason enough to at least give the Counselor cause for concern. He also has a predatory girlfriend, played with feline grace by Cameron Diaz (The Box, Gambit), by whom he is both entranced and frightened. Brad Pitt (Killing Them Softly, World War Z), perhaps easing himself into the role of character actor, steals every scene he’s in as Westray, the charismatic middle-man whose wise warnings about the potential consequences of getting into bed with a drugs cartel go unheeded by the Counselor.
It’s not so much the storyline of The Counselor that’s convoluted as the manner in which it’s told. Characters rarely talk of things directly related to the plot, and when they do their conversation is without context. Only on reflection, after the credits have rolled, or on a second viewing, do things make some kind of sense. Those in the movie whose knowledge gives them a position of control, deliver inappropriately metaphysical monologues that are at odds with the regular speech patterns of the other characters. It’s jarring for the audience; it’s as if these characters have wandered in from a David Mamet movie, and is a distraction at the exact moment when our full attention should be focused on what is being said.
Cinema has a habit of trivialising violence, of delivering it in palatable packages and of disregarding its consequences, and The Counselor’s strength lies in its exploration of how easy it is for ordinary people to wander blindly into a world in which they don’t belong, and whose differences from their own they don’t fully understand. Like a man finding himself lost in a slum district he visited on a dare, the Counselor finds to his horror that the world in which he thought he was dipping a toe has suddenly engulfed him, and that there is no return to his own one. It’s a powerful story, and for all its faults, The Counselor tells it in an intelligent, precisely constructed fashion, even if it’s narrative style places demands upon its audience for which decades of being spoon-fed information has left them Ill-prepared. Don’t be surprised, though, if The Counselor enjoys a more positive re-appraisal sometime in the future.
(Reviewed 27th December 2015)