There are plenty of good movies out there right now: All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Enough Said, Gravity, Prisoners, 12 Years a Slave, and Rush among them. Ridley Scott directing a starry cast in The Counselor, from an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, would seem like another title for your must-see list. But it isn’t. Must-flee is more like it, as you smell it festering in the dimmest recesses of your multiplex.
What happened? After Prometheus, a disappointing return to his roots, Scott may have felt that a violent, sexy thriller was just the thing to get the juices flowing, and one penned by a Great Man of American Letters all the more irresistible. But McCarthy ruminates and muses about sex and violence. He ponders it; the thrills are besides the point. Escapism isn’t his bag. In their Oscar-winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coen brothers knew how to work with his strengths, and work around the more literary, uncinematic qualities of his novels. Scott, on his knees, prostrate before a legend of fiction, hasn’t done anything to shape the questionable material he’s been given, which does the author no favors. If McCarthy had sent this script to, say, John Huston or Sam Peckinpah, two directors known for venturing south of the border where The Counselor resides, they would have said “What is this fancy-pants shit?” and thrown it across the room. Maybe they would have slugged him, or invited him to fix it over tequila, blow, and hookers. Whatever–by filming it without apparent filters, in his usual high-gloss manner where corpse-laden desert highways are indistinguishable from chic bedrooms, Scott has done McCarthy no favors. The movie is weirdly masturbatory, as director and screenwriter beat off in neo-noir territory.
The Counselor belabors a simple, borderline-set story, told in a fashionably “elliptical” style, that is, with holes you’re left to fill. (And you will, long before the movie thinks you will, thanks in part to a lot of overemphatic foreshadowing.) Acting primarily, and uninterestingly, through a set of immaculately groomed teeth, Michael Fassbender is the unnamed (pretension alert) counselor, who has bought an expensive engagement ring for his sweet, naive, religious girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). With this and other bills to pay, the counselor, presented as a blank slate, decides to get his hands a little dirty when an opportunity to get in on a $20 million heroin shipment arranged by the fearsome Mexican cartel presents itself. A client, the entrepreneurial drug dealer Reiner (played with big hair and patented marble-mouthed flamboyance by No Country Oscar winner Javier Bardem), warns him of the risks, as does a nebulous middleman, Westray (Brad Pitt). Boy, do they warn him, in long, static passages of windbag dialogue, emoting on fate, avarice, Mickey Rourke in Body Heat, and “easeful death,” among other topics, in the most purplish of prose, as the movie sputters to a halt several times.
More inclined toward action is Reiner’s hotsy lady, the mysterious Malinka (Cameron Diaz), who identifies with the cheetahs Reiner races in the desert, and keeps a watchful eye on his transactions, leading to many a downfall as the counselor sinks into an obvious trap. Poor Diaz; hoping for a Basic Instinct-era Sharon Stone career lift, she’s let down severely by McCarthy, whose cultural attitudes are more 1963 than 2013. There are two kinds of women in The Counselor, madonna and whore (and pretty much one kind of Latino, drug dealer). Given her own ludicrous speech–something about her parents being tossed out of a plane as she watched–Diaz is then obliged to spread-eagle herself atop a windshield and “fuck the car,” as an appalled Bardem watches from the driver’s seat. He describes the uninhibited spectacle as “too gynecological…like a catfish writhing up there,” and the act as the mark of her true evil. I saw this, and cannot unsee it, and submit it as Exhibit A in prosecuting The Counselor for misogynistic turn-ons. Cruz, long in the tooth at age 39 to be simpering for her boyfriend to marry her and settle down, also has her privates pawed at in the opening scene. Scott and McCarthy: distinguished in their fields, or dirty old men?
I could go on. The friendship between kewpie doll Cruz and the lascivious Diaz is absurd. Scott’s Thelma and Louise discovery Pitt, gone thick in jowl and belly, more or less repeats his role in last year’s equally lugubrious, if more pointed, Killing Them Softly. An expansive supporting cast–Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, and John Leguizamo are among those who turn up in a hopscotch of locations–laid waste despite effort. The ignorance of a character being told that she shouldn’t skip town for Hong Kong, where she won’t “speak the language,” when English is widely spoken in the former Crown Colony. The use of that old canard, snuff films, which brings the movie up to date to about, oh, 1976. The tedium of it all–and, yes, car fucking and a pair of gaudy decapitations, one a lift from Fellini’s exquisite “Toby Dammit” segment, part of the omnibus Spirits of the Dead (1968), weren’t enough to keep my attention from wandering. Pushing the envelope simply to push the envelope is numbing. Counselor, I object.