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The Counselor is a slow-and-slower-fuse burner of deception, decapitations, and drugs set mostly in El Paso and across the border in Mexico. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy's first original script is dense in moral relativism and rich in language aided by top-choice actors to deliver his scriptural dialogue.
So what's Cameron Diaz doing in it?
As Malkina, an ex-stripper turned femme fatale whose ruthless streak frightens even her drug-dealer boyfriend Reiner (Javier Bardem), Diaz is simply out of her league, reciting lines of self-analysis and moral imperatives with neither conviction nor persuasion. The lack of believability is especially glaring when placed toe-to-toe with the otherwise brilliant cast, led by Michael Fassbender as The Counselor and Bardem.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy.
A 20th Century Fox release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content, and language.
Running time: 117 minutes.
Critic’s Rating ★★½
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Ruben Blades, Rosie Perez
★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor
The troubles of this disappointing film, which unites McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien), is more than someone's struggles at the deep end of the pool, but a surprising lack of inertia. Scott ensures The Counselor is stunning to the eyes, and McCarthy ensures it sings to the ears. But the film is an unremarkable journey; a two-hour movie with a half-hour story of bad decisions and their inevitable consequences.
The Counselor (Fassbender) makes for an interesting protagonist, at least, an El Paso attorney just on the right side of the law who's driven to desperate acts by financial woes after he springs for a hefty engagement ring for girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz). To pay off the debt he makes a deal with a Mexican drug cartel. You can see where this is going.
And so do his drug-dealing friends, Reiner and Westray (Brad Pitt), a colorful Texan who speaks matter-of-factly of the price that comes with living in this world. They strongly discourage The Counselor from joining their ranks.
"If you pursue this road that you've embarked upon, you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise," Reiner advises in one of the film's many early foreshadows.
The Counselor doesn't listen, and when the sewage truck hauling the cocaine is hijacked by a rival cartel, he, along with Reiner and Westray, are indebted to the cartel for $20 million.
The Counselor proclaims his innocence to his friends and tells them that he's a victim of circumstances. It doesn't matter to men they owe money to, Westray says.
"They don't believe in coincidences. They've heard of them, they've just never seen them."
From this point forward the plot methodically plays out as Old Testament justice, the trio's fates sealed much like those ancient rulers who crossed the Israelites. The Counselor runs out of options, as he tries to escape El Paso with Laura. Westray makes good on his ability to disappear at a moment's notice. And Reiner prepares for life without Malkina. "When the ax comes through the door, I'll already be gone," she informs him before things get really bad.
The film's emotional climax — and its singular point — comes in a philosophical lecture to the now despondent Counselor by Jefe (Rubén Blades), the most introspective drug kingpin ever put to screen.
"You are the world that you have created," Jefe says. "And when you cease to exist, this world that you have created will also cease to exist."
McCarthy's dialogue isn't so much in service of the plot as it is ecclesiastical pronouncements and judgments, along with soliloquies about what it all means. Spoiler alert: not much.
The Counselor is a minor drama about characters masquerading as a painfully slow thriller and an unfortunate waste of talent on both sides of the camera. There's no snap or impetus in Scott's direction nor in McCarthy's script. But at least it looks and sounds impressive.
Fassbender, Bardem, and Blades have the necessary gravitas to pull off the material. Pitt holds his own as well. As actors with their share of underwritten films, they clearly relish the opportunity to deliver lines that really matter — even if The Counselor doesn't.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.