The Counsellor

Art & Culture

At first, I thought this was a dull film, then I realised it was pretentious. After that, I decided it was nasty. And in the end, I knew it was just dreadful. How a film with such a cast, director and scriptwriter could be so atrocious needs exploring in more detail.

Let’s start with the script. Where else? I can only assume that when Cormac McCarthy announced that he’d written a film script, lips were being licked all over Hollywood. Several of his novels (No Country For Old Men, in particular) have been made into successful films. How great would his script be? As it happens, not great at all, which begs the question of whether anyone actually read it before they agreed to buy it; or if they did, whether they had the nerve to question its quality.

Let’s look at the story. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a lawyer. He has a girlfriend (Penelope Cruz), a kind of friend/business partner (Javier Bardem), and an apparently successful and prosperous lifestyle. What he doesn’t have is a name. Everyone just calls him Counselor, which seems just a little odd. Bardem has a girlfriend (Cameron Diaz), who likes hunting with cheetahs, and is an alpha female. The other main character is Brad Pitt, who operates in some kind of hinterland between legality and dodginess, and like most of the characters, is given to uttering banal aphorisms about the meaning of life and death.

The Counselor has chosen to get involved in a drug deal, with the compliance of Bardem and Pitt, for reasons that are not made clear, though the word ‘greed’ is used, as if that is sufficient explanation. Something goes wrong for reasons that are also not clear, but involves a decapitation (one of two in the film), and the Counselor becomes the target of suspicion for the drug cartel whose drug deal he was involved in. From then on, things go from bad to worse, with women in peril, gratuitous nastiness, double crossing, and a continuing confusion as to what is happening and why. If only we cared.

Let’s start by pinning the blame squarely on Cormac McCarthy who wrote the bloody thing. I can only assume that the film was made the way he wrote it, on the grounds that it must have been treated like the Bible – untouchable. McCarthy’s intentions are a mystery. Perhaps he thought he was creating an existential thriller. But if so, he is living in an alternative universe. This is an incoherent mess, without meaning, purpose or interest. It’s one thing if we don’t understand what’s going on, but it’s a more serious problem when we don’t care. The characters are caricatures; Fassbender is the Foolish Victim; Cruz is the Innocent Bystander; Diaz is the Femme Fatale; Bardem is the Wacky Friend; and Pitt is – well, he’s the kid in Thelma and Louise 20 years later. You can’t simply stick two people in a room, and have them exchange dialogue along the lines of “Truth has no temperature”, and get away with it. A film is not a novel.

OK, time to stick to it Ridley Scott, who must have agreed to make the film in the first place. But he must have realised at some point that what he’d thought was an eagle was in fact a turkey. But rather than taking the trouble to cook it, he’s just put some tinsel round its neck. All the scenes are set in glamorous interiors and dusty exteriors, but there is no energy or conviction on view. The actors have little chance in this setting. Fassbender give sit his best shot, but there’s nothing substantial for him to work with. Cruz is just an accident waiting to happen. Diaz is completely out of her depth, but I question whether there’s a role there for any actress. It’s just a series of gruesome male fantasies, each one more depressingly misogynistic than the last. And so it goes on. 

What starts off as dull ends up as a train wreck. We realise that no enlightenment is heading our way, and that all the blather we have sat through is sound and fury signifying nothing. In the words of Ian Dury, ‘What A Waste.’


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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