Westray (Brad Pitt), left, talks to the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) in “The Counselor.” Photo by Kerry Brown
Westray (Brad Pitt), left, talks to the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) in “The Counselor.” Photo by Kerry Brown
Arts Rancho Santa Fe

Film review: Powerful writing doesn’t save ‘The Counselor’

While Cormac McCarthy’s writing gives it a powerful boost, “The Counselor” is passable at best, making it one of Ridley Scott’s not-so interesting ventures. 

A lawyer known only as the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has everything he could ever want: a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend (Penélope Cruz), a wealthy lifestyle, and connections such as the mysterious couple Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz). But to him, all he has just isn’t enough — he wants more, and in doing so, decides to participate in the drug trade. His greedy actions carry grave consequences; and soon put him in the worst possible position anyone could imagine.

Once you hear McCarthy’s eloquent dialogue flow through the characters’ mouths, it’s impossible to ignore what they’re revealing about themselves. Every conversation, every remark, every expression — it has the fingerprints of a master writer all over it. And I suppose having Scott’s trademark atmospheric visual look helps to convey that declarative voice McCarthy has gained a reputation for.

Anyone who has seen the previews might already know the story arc of “The Counselor” — a lawyer who pays the price for his involvement in drug trafficking — and therefore assume the actual film itself to possess a strong sense of organized awareness.

Well, the strange thing is, it consists of two intersecting ingredients — the Counselor’s personal life and the world of illegal drugs — that are supposed to become one, but they don’t mesh well before and upon meeting each other. Neither one can merge to create a narrative that consists of elements in agreement.

In fact, both plot components seem more like two TV episodes jammed into one, causing the film to lose focus. As a result, the story isn’t a cohesive whole, and doesn’t fully communicate the outcome of the Counselor.

In addition, the slow pacing backfires on Scott’s direction, which is unusual, because that signature element of his style tends to work in his favor. It’s obvious “The Counselor” is a character-driven dramatic thriller, but as much as it imbues the drama with relevance, the thrills are largely absent and only appear sporadically. And when your tension isn’t spread out evenly — which takes the form of a few uninteresting shootouts and the occasional grisly murder —there’s instability to be expected.

Admittedly, the five cast members look and sound impressive, but I still find myself wondering why two succeeded with flying colors, two were anything but at the top of their game, and one’s potential wasn’t fleshed out enough.

Michael Fassbender does an excellent job of emoting the Counselor’s greed and helplessness, and his attention to detail leads to an immense pay-off that leaves no dimension untouched. Pulling off a character like that is no easy task, but his immersive performance makes getting in over your head look easy.

Javier Bardem, who plays Reiner, mixes extravagant charisma with nervous meditation to create someone who enjoys and fears his dangerous lifestyle. Of all the actors chosen by Scott, he gets the best selection of McCarthy’s dialogue in the film, and the vibrant energy he exudes is matched by his striking hairstyle.

Brad Pitt’s turn as the seedy middleman Westray falls into the “strictly OK” category; his role is nowhere near the likes of the one he played in last year’s “Killing Them Softly,” but it isn’t a knockout one either.

Penélope Cruz is criminally underused; all she gets to do is be the naïve girlfriend who has no idea what her man does.

I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but it was difficult to feel anything for her as the film progressed due to what appeared to be a lack of interest in her fate.

As for Cameron Diaz, her performance walks the fine line between promising and disappointing.

She’s a convincing sociopath, that’s for sure; however, there were times where I couldn’t discern what her purpose in the film was and why she did the things she did.

It’s too bad Diaz didn’t deliver the goods, but then again, she’s not a dramatic actress.

Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” is no textbook example of his better moments, but with Cormac McCarthy lending a steady hand, it’s not as disastrous as it could’ve turned out to be.

MPAA rating: R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language.
Running time: 1 hour and 57 minutes
Playing: In general release