The Counselor has no defense

Heavy-handed and light on suspense, Ridley Scott’s latest is an enjoyable letdown.

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click to enlarge DRUG MONEY: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has a young, sweet gal (Penelope Cruz), that he intends to marry. But first he needs cash … - Kerry Brown
Kerry Brown
DRUG MONEY: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has a young, sweet gal (Penelope Cruz), that he intends to marry. But first he needs cash …

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is looking to join his pals in the drug trade. He’s got a young, sweet gal, Laura (Penelope Cruz), that he intends to marry and wants to spoil her. Gotta have cash, right? So he consults confidants and trafficking adepts Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) about entering the fray. Reiner, living a lavish life of excess, is excited to have him aboard but makes no bones about what he’s getting into. Westray, a rainy-day saver and pragmatist, cautions his friend about the steps he’s about to take and where that path may lead him. He doesn’t try to dissuade the Counselor so much as gauge his commitment.

So, into the underworld he goes, buying Laura a huge rock she shows off to Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the slightly unsettling consort of Reiner’s. But something goes wrong with a shipment out of Juarez. The shit hits the fans and all eyes look to the new guy. What has the Counselor gotten himself into? And how can he get Laura out safely, even as friends and hopes are scattered to the winds?

The Counselor is a study in archetypes scattered across the moral spectrum. Sweet, naïve Laura is the innocent, unknowing virginal character, representing the only bit of purity in the Counselor’s life. Reiner, clad in motley even, is the fool, easy spending and giving little worry to the consequences even as the world crashes down around him. Malkina, his cheetah-tattooed consort, is the predator, vicious and without remorse. Westray is the sage elder, full of unheeded caution and wisdom for the Counselor.

The dialogue is both brilliantly heavy-handed and sluggish. While it is remarkable in its existential eloquence, it also subdues the pulse of the film and robs it of the opportunity for greater suspense. While scriptwriter Cormac McCarthy’s works have been excellently adapted for the screen (The Road, No Country For Old Men), his first foray into filmmaking misses the mark with overly verbose, philosophical characters. It almost takes a second viewing to fully grasp the scope of the refined dialogue, the way Gravity was better in IMAX after seeing it first in a regular theater and getting a chance to appreciate the film before being blown away by visuals.

The cast all perform admirably. Fassbender emotes with elemental force. Pitt’s cautionary character is credible and Bardem is like a neo-Modern Tony Montana, if he was a mollyed-out frat boy. Diaz and Cruz are equally skilled in representing the dark and light of the world.

The Counselor is enjoyable and well-written, just too well-written for the screen. It fumbles and grasps but can’t quite ascend to its intended greatness, weighed down by big ideas too heavy to execute. In the waning moments, it’s downright unsettling. The audience will sit, wide-eyed and prone as the credits roll, and implore their neighbors to find out what the fuck just kicked them in the stomach. Check out The Counselor, but be prepared to be let down while still enjoying it.

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