October 25, 2013



THE COUNSELOR:  Not Even For Free – A Deluxe Pedigree, But Only Cut-Rate Nihilism

The first “uh-oh” moment in THE COUNSELOR comes early, perhaps 10 minutes in.  We’ve barely been introduced to Reiner (Javier Bardem, genially dissolute, his hair spiky this time) and his lover Malkina (Cameron Diaz, speaking with an on-again, off-again sultry accent and tattooed with cheetah spots), who are amusing themselves by sipping perfect drinks at sunset as they watch their pet cheetah stalking a jackrabbit.  When Malkina remarks that she doesn’t miss things (and by extension people) that are gone, because they’re not coming back, Reiner says that’s a bit cold.

To which she responds:  “I think truth has no temperature.”

Uh oh.

No Country For Old Men was one of the most felicitous literary adaptations of the last decade, and on the surface, it appeared to be an easy one:  the Coen Brothers took most of the plot from Cormac McCarthy’s novel and chunks of his dialogue and simply reproduced it on screen.  When McCarthy decided to write his first original screenplay, there seemed to be no reason why he wouldn’t be able to write something equally cinematic and powerful on his own, and studios fought over the rights.  (Fox won.)  Ridley Scott signed on to direct, and the combination of the two attracted a deluxe cast including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz and Brad Pitt in addition to Bardem and Diaz.  The project was so A-list that even virtual walk-on roles were filled with ringers like Natalie Dormer, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Edgar Ramirez and Dean Norris.

But left to his own devices, without the Coens’ mitigating genius, McCarthy flails about as a screenwriter.  And although Scott is commonly considered an auteur director, and he’s certainly a visual stylist, he’s always been at the mercy of his scripts (Exhibits A and B:  Alien vs. Prometheus.)  The result, alas, is a pretentious, formless, glibly nihilistic disaster.

The plot isn’t particularly complicated, but it’s told in such a pointlessly enigmatic way that it’s difficult to follow.  The unnamed border lawyer referred to merely as Counselor (Fassbender), preparing to marry his lovely fiance Laura (Cruz), has decided to go into business with his client Reiner and, through the middleman Westray (Pitt), buy a truck full of drugs from a Mexican cartel.  The truck will make its way from Mexico, through Texas, and eventually to Chicago, where the drugs in it will be cut and sold for the usual huge profit.  But along the way, the truck is waylaid, which seals the fates of everyone involved with the deal.  That’s really all there is–the only mystery is who was responsible for the truck’s abduction, and McCarthy and Scott don’t care enough to keep that secret for very long.

No Country had an equally grim view of the universe and the human condition, but it also had a moral center in the Tommy Lee Jones character, and in Josh Brolin and Kelly McDonald it had protagonists who, however doomed they turned out to be, a viewer could root for.  (And in the hands of the Coens, it was run through with a brilliant spice of black humor to leaven the bloodshed.)   Fassbender isn’t the warmest of actors at the best of times, and his character in Counselor is so undeveloped that one doesn’t empathize with his predicament or care whether he lives or dies.  The only character the script tries to make sympathetic is Laura, but she’s thinly drawn and overly idealized, the result being little sense of reality.  Bardem seems to be walking through a role too similar to those he’s played before (and not even a shadow of the one that won him an Oscar in No Country), and Pitt does a less interesting version of the kind of character he played in last year’s Killing Them Softly, a similar and, while flawed, much better film.  Diaz is saddled with the movie’s most embarrassing sequence, masturbating to climax against the windshield of a Ferrari, that’s no doubt meant to say something about not just Malkina but materialism and sexuality and greed, but which just makes us feel for the actress.

McCarthy’s script is very bad, filled with scenes of characters talking at each other in overripe, polished nuggets of existential philosophy that are like a hyper-violent version of a George Bernard Shaw play.  (Blades’s one scene, in which he imparts wisdom about the impossibility of avoiding a dreadful reality, is a five-minute long sustained howler.)  It’s also annoyingly insecure and repetitive, in ways Scott should have rescued.  A character delivers a lengthy speech about a particularly ugly way the cartels murder people, thuddingly foreshadowing that we’ll see that done before the movie ends; and after another character has received notice (in an effectively fiendish way) that a third character is dead, it’s not enough–we still have to get a shot of the dead body, in case we missed the point.  I lost count of the number of times people warned the Counselor of what was going to happen if he went ahead with the drug deal, and how inevitable his fate was going to be once it went wrong.

There’s no suspense or emotional involvement to be had in The Counselor, but it’s not unwatchable.  Scott, as usual, delivers an expert technical package, working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, editor Pietro Scalia, composer Daniel Pemberton and production designer Arthur Max.  (He’s worked with all but Pemberton before.)  There’s one beautifully designed sequence where a motorcyclist is dealt with, and another, virtually throwaway sequence involving the contents of one of the barrels loaded into that truck.  But calling the film “cold” is paying it too much of a compliment–it’s detached, businesslike, impersonal and dull (it’s most like Body Of Lies among Scott’s films, another failed paranoid thriller).

The Counselor is an object lesson in how a production can seemingly assemble all the ingredients of a great film, and end up with little.  With all its pedigree, what it needed most was a script doctor.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."