Cormac McCarthy. The highly respected author can flat out write, sometimes too well. His novels are very, VERY literary to the point I struggle to find a rhythm and even enjoy the stories. I'm a little late to the party, but McCarthy bypassed the novel and went right to the screenplay with his first such work, 2013's The Counselor. The reviews are mostly mixed to negative. Where did I fall?
A defense lawyer with a solid reputation but addressed only as 'Counselor' (Michael Fassbender) is joining the riskiest of business ventures against his better judgment. He has become involved with a business partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem), who he hopes to open a nightclub with but that's the far cleaner option. Dealing with some serious money issues, Counselor has gone in on a drug deal involving over 600 kilos of cocaine being transported, the end payday being potentially $20 million. The money is quite the incentive, but is the extreme risk even remotely worth it? The money is just too much to pass on even considering the risk, but even this talented, confident lawyer doesn't know what he's got into with the drug cartel involved. Bottom line is money, and anything that gets in the way is simply collateral damage.
I've read five McCarthy novels; No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, The Road, The Crossing and All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy is a bleak writer. These aren't stories of hope or faith or anything positive. They revolve around death, murder, and generally, a sense that the world is always nearing some sort of apocalypse, an end day. McCarthy is an extremely talented writer, no doubt about it. His books though, they can be difficult to get through because he is so talented. That bleakness, that readable difficulty, it is both positive and negative. I really have to be in the right frame of mind to read a McCarthy novel. If you finish it, you feel like you've truly accomplished something.
So how about McCarthy tackling a screenplay without the middle man of a published novel? That's 'Counselor.' The basic story of an outsider getting involved in a drug cartel is nothing new in films, TV and literature, but McCarthy does manage to put his own unique spin on it. There is NO hope in this world, only greed, death, betrayal and regret. 'Counselor' currently has a 34% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 5.4 at IMDB so it obviously didn't sit too well with viewers. I liked it -- as much as you're supposed to like a movie like this -- but my goodness, there are some amazingly obvious flaws. In its bleakness, it tries ridiculously hard in heavy-handed fashion to get that message across. We encounter one stilted, heavy conversation after another about death and life and evil and decent rights and horrific wrongs. In doses, these things work. But one after another? An already heavy, at times tedious story gets even heavier, even darker to the point it can be exhausting.
You know what I've forgotten by this fifth paragraph? 'Counselor' is directed by a talented director, Ridley Scott, who talented actors and actresses seemingly want to work with. Go figure. It's a great cast here, but the characters feel almost like cardboard cutouts. They're interesting because the cast goes for it -- sometimes too much -- but at no point does it feel like any of these people are real. Fassbender does an excellent job in the titular role, but that script, it pretentiously calls him 'Counselor' without ever giving him a real name. Yeah, heavy-handed literary devices! I was worried Bardem would ham it up too much as Reiner, but his part was fascinating just because of what drives the character, and that would be excess. Their scenes together are excellent as are Brad Pitt's scenes with Fassbender. Pitt plays Westray, the Counselor's middleman of sorts who continues to recommend his new partner bail and run before he's too deep into the deal.
Not that the fellas escape unscathed, but the female cast members are done no favor. Ripped straight out of a 1940s film noir and then injected with oozing sex and a general over the top quality, Cameron Diaz plays Malkina, Reiner's seemingly unhinged girlfriend. It's a scream watching Reiner's flashback about a sexual encounter they had in his car. Diaz commits, but the part feels overdone. Penelope Cruz on the other hand is the female goddess, there to represent beauty and love and all that good stuff. Her Laura character is the Counselor's girlfriend (and later fiance), mostly there as something that can be used against our intrepid lawyer should anything go wrong.
Without giving anything away in terms of character and some twists along the way, also look for Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, Toby Kebbell, Goran Visnjic, and Bruno Ganz in parts of varying importance and screentime.
It's the rare movie that doesn't have good and bad features. On top of its impeccable cast and time-transplanted film noir plot, 'Counselor' is dripping with tension, a feeling of foreboding and sense of doom, of something horrific to come. That's especially evident in a description of a horrific device used by the drug cartels to take out troublemakers. You hear about it early and then spend the rest of the film waiting to see it in horrifying action. This is one uncomfortable movie, and that's a good thing. Definitely a positive. That doom cloud hanging over the story though, it limits what the story can do. I never felt I had a read on the Counselor (the character). I would have liked some more exposition about the characters (all of them) and the set-up. No, not everything laid out on a silver platter, but a little something. As is the case at times when I've read McCarthy novels, it feels like he's trying to be the most literary person ever. That unfortunately is the feeling here.
Here we sit. Not a classic but not the complete dud so many made it out to be. Sometimes 'Counselor' gets too wrapped up in the sex and violence, but the guts of it is a disturbingly dark story that doesn't pull any punches. Know what you're getting into, but yikes, it is an interesting film experience for good and bad.
The Counselor (2013): ** 1/2 /****