It would certainly be tempting to dismiss completely British director Ridley Scott’s drug trafficking drama The Counsellor (2013) and write a hell-for-leather kicking of the film, as many already have. Likewise, it would be relatively easy to position yourself outside of the choir and herald it as a masterpiece that will, in years to come, be recognised as such – as was the case with Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which also received an initially cool welcome from critics. However, the fact of the matter is that The Counsellor is that strange fish: an almost-turkey and an almost-masterpiece. It falls near-perfectly between two stools, but thankfully never quite becomes one.
Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous legal advisor, a wealthy man who has everything – the objective correlative of which is fiancée Laura (Penélope Cruz). However, when has everything ever been enough? And so, along with sleazy night club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem), a plot is hatched: a one-time deal, the details of which are purposefully unclear. Loud, clear and spelled out repeatedly are the dangers. Reiner himself is gorily explicit as to the punishment the cartels meat out to those dabbling in their trade. Another involved party, Westray (Brad Pitt), takes time out of his busy schedule to repeatedly warn our hero, whilst Reiner’s girlfriend and accomplice Malkina (Cameron Diaz) stalks away in the shadows.
The Counsellor’s screenplay comes courtesy of novelist of the moment Cormac McCarthy (Child of God, The Road) and the all star cast plus a high powered director seemed to promise something special. Despite the hype that this was McCarthy’s first original screenplay, this is only partially true. No Country for Old Men was first written as a screenplay and then converted into a novel after it failed to sell, before the Coens stumbled onto it. McCarthy has given his character some wonderful lines, but these are subsumed by the swathes of philosophical McCarthy-speak. Bardem and Pitt manage to make something of it, but Cameron Diaz is made to look frankly ridiculous, not withstanding the rumoured dub which took out a distracting Argentine accent.
Although McCarthy’s plot is intentionally obfuscated, what we do see is just outrageously dumb. Like watching a college professor break dance, this is cleverness doing what it doesn’t understand. And yet the look of the film is gorgeous, with Scott creating something like a homage to his late brother’s best work (Tony Scott took his life during the film’s production). There’s a beguiling oddness to the whole affair, an atmosphere of glossy dread and foreboding. Ultimately, The Counsellor fits into Scott’ filmography beside 1492, Black Rain and Someone to Watch Over Me; a technically accomplished though flawed effort, which nevertheless demands repeat viewing if only to satisfy the lingering suspicion that in there somewhere is a really good film.