The Counselor is an unusual beast.
In its opening moments, cheetahs stalk wild hares on the Savannah, not of Africa but Mexico; a flamboyant, eccentrically rich couple picnic nearby in the company of some luxury motors.
Sometime soon Michael Fassbender’s nameless eponym will be buying a diamond from Bruno Ganz’s merchant, who pontificates on the beauty of the stone lying in its flaws. A pure diamond, he says, would seem to be comprised of air. The film, however, manages to be both flawed and ultimately insubstantial.
Cormac McCarthy’s script hides its hollowness behind philosophizing, behind its sparse literariness (he may have written the novel No Country For Old Men, but the adaptation was notably penned by the Coen Brothers). There’s enough wit to mostly cover the lack of substance (McCarthy, after all, does have a Pulitzer to his name), but being stylish and well-lit cannot compensate for The Counselor‘s thematic and textual murkiness.
Fassbender is nicely understated in the lead role and shares impressive chemistry with Penelope Cruz as his sexy Catholic fiancé. A scene with them hidden, writhing, beneath the covers, carrying on a breathy conversation, is well-conceived; if a touch too explicit dialogue-wise.
The film’s fundamental disconnect is summed up in an already-notorious scene where Cameron Diaz’s Malkina mounts the bonnet of a yellow 2013 Ferrari California HS and proceeds to grind on it, panty-less, till orgasm, an act her boyfriend (Javier Bardem) appropriately describes as “too gynecological to be sexy”.
Similarly, The Counselor is too gynecological to be insightful. Combine this with the cartel violence, familiar touches like bodies in barrels, and it feels an attempted cross between Breaking Bad and Shame. It even features – SPOILER – a somewhat wasted cameo by the usually great Dean Norris.
Ridley Scott shoots the New Mexico brilliantly – dusty, rocky, scrubby, in shades of brown and yellow – but there’s no one to really connect with. Bardem’s vivid, wild-haired, wide-eyed, nut-brown drug dealer Reiner (one of the aforementioned eccentric rich couple) is arresting, but ultimately listless.
The auto-erotically-inclined Malkina, too trashy to be attractive, is an ingenious apparently all-knowing provocateur. With her cheetah print tattoo and her cool, pouty monologuing, she provides the clearest insight into the film’s nihilistic central theme of greed and survival. Like the film as a whole, though, it’s a case of “all fur coat and no knickers”.
Despite all this, and its plot hinging on a neatly lamp-shaded coincidence, The Counselor manages to occasionally be both textured and complex. It’s at its best when at its tensest and most technical, like with the rigging of a metal-wire trap across a roadway or the gruesome reminder that a bolito is not a type of necktie (well, it is, of sorts).
There’s a memorable shootout across a road, gunmen firing desperately across the flat surface from shallow ditches at either side, but, again, no characters to really root for. Instead of Tommy Lee Jones’ rumpled, deeply human Sheriff a la No Country, the film gives us Brad Pitt’s mysterious, knowing-yet-ultimately-hapless middleman.
Overall, the film is an intriguing failure for the talent involved. It feels more like a more pretentious take on the middlebrow thrillers of Tony Scott (RIP) than a classic Ridley Scott outing. That being said, it’s still a darn sight better than Prometheus.