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Counselor, The

aka The Counsellor

D: Ridley Scott / 117m

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Rubén Blades, Sam Spruell, Toby Kebbell, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic

An original thriller from the pen of Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor is a cautionary tale about what can happen when a good man does something bad. The ‘bad’ in this case is get involved in a drug deal where a $20m shipment, bound for Chicago from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, is hijacked along the way. The good man is the titular (unnamed) counsellor, seen first expressing his love for Laura (Cruz). His plan is to use the money he’ll get back from the deal to set up their life together; he buys a very expensive diamond engagement ring for her, further stretching his finances. In on the deal with him is Rainer (Bardem, sporting another of his strange movie hairstyles) and Westray (Pitt). What none of them know is that Rainer’s girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz) is behind the hijacking. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as all three men try and stay one step ahead of the cartel that suspects one or all of them are responsible.

Like a lot of Ridley Scott’s movies, The Counselor starts off promisingly enough but soon tails off into something completely at odds with the original mise-en-scène. The cautionary tale becomes a darkly-comic thriller that becomes a series of improbable scenes involving the Counselor’s efforts to extricate himself from the mess he’s got himself into, before becoming an equally improbable electronic money heist set in London. All the while, the movie is punctuated with the kind of profound monologues (Blades’ especially) that nobody really says in real life, and clinically-filmed set pieces that offer brief release from the turgid nature of the screenplay. There’s no doubt that McCarthy is a great writer, but film is a medium that, on this occasion, he’s failed to get to grips with. His characterisations are only occasionally compelling, while the Counselor is required to fall apart as soon as he hears about the hijacking and just plummet further from there. Malkina has no back story, no reasons given for her actions and Diaz is left playing a modern-dress version of Lady Macbeth, but without the informed psychology. It’s a tribute to Diaz that Malkina isn’t played entirely one-dimensionally, but there are times when it’s a close-run thing. And the character of Laura is given little to do other than to provide a reason for the Counselor’s getting involved in the deal in the first place; after that Cruz is pretty much sidelined.

Counselor, The - scene

As you would expect from a Ridley Scott movie, The Counselor is a visual treat, Scott painting celluloid pictures with the same verve and attention to detail that he’s been doing since The Duellists (1977). The desert vistas in Mexico are beautifully filmed, as is the US back road where the hijacking takes place – a brutally short but bravura piece that is a stand out, along with Westray’s eventual fate. Scott’s grasp on a script’s cinematic requirements is as sharp as always, and while he is a supreme stylist, he doesn’t appear to have kept a firm hand on what’s being filmed; as a result there are several nuances that are missing or undeveloped, not least in the encounter between Malkina and Laura which could have resonated much more than it does. Instead it becomes just a scene where we learn Malkina can be manipulative for the sake of it.

While Diaz and Bardem’s characters make for an unlikely couple, their scenes together are fun to watch, but it’s Pitt who comes off best as the been there, seen-it-all, knows when to get out Westray. It’s he that predicts the movie’s outcome, he that tells the audience in his first scene what’s going to happen to at least two of the characters, and it’s he that has the best line in the movie: when talking about the cartel, he says, “…they don’t really believe in coincidences.  They’ve heard of them.  They’ve just never seen one.” There’s a great little cameo from John Leguizamo (uncredited), and as Malkina’s hijacker of choice, Sam Spruell exudes a cold menace that keeps you watching out for him even when he’s not on-screen. Fassbender has the unenviable task of getting the audience to sympathise with a character who looks for anyone else to get him out of the hole he’s dug too deep, and by the film’s end you wish the cartel would catch up with him and put him, and us, out of our collective misery.

The Counselor isn’t a bad movie per se, just a muddled, at times distracting movie that loses focus throughout, only to redeem itself with a scene or two of better impact. There’s a nihilistic approach at times, and often you don’t care what happens to anyone, even Laura, presented here as a (mostly) innocent bystander. It looks great, as expected, but there are too many hollow moments for it to work properly. As with a lot of movies, the script is responsible for this, and while this is only his second screenplay after The Sunset Limited (2011), McCarthy shouldn’t be discouraged from writing any more.

Rating: 6/10 – it could have been so much better, but The Counselor fails to engage on an emotional level, and while as you’d expect from Scott it’s a pleasure to look at, there’s too little going on too often for it to work as a whole.