This Cormac McCarthy-penned drug-cartel noir The Counsellor may be, to use a wanky word, the most oxymoronic film experience you’ll ever have in 2013. It’s a work of utter contradiction, fatally determined to take itself ever so seriously despite of its occasionally farcical scenario and hellbent on hammering home life’s Big Topics and Important Messages at every opportunity, just in case no one has explained what death, greed and morality meant to you before. One minute it’s compelling, the next turns awfully clichéd. Some moments hold genuine power, while others bask in ponderous pretentiousness. Ridley Scott is drafted in to direct the picture, yet the resulting frames consistently struggle to exhibit a directorial style and personality, often resulting in generic blandness that could have been conducted by any Hollywood director-for-hire. Ultimately, it boasts one of the year’s greatest ensembles that could potentially bankrupt a production company in talent alone, but all somehow awkwardly grapple with each of their written parts.
So, lo and behold, enters the responsibility of the screenwriter. There’s no denying McCarthy’s hallowed place in American literature, with all formidable works No Country For Old Men, The Road and Blood Meridian tucked proudly under his belt, but now there’s room to investigate his place in cinema as a writer for the silverscreen. The Counsellor is obviously not interested in machinations of plot, shady dealings, drug-cartel gone awry and missing cargoes, but rather in the philosophy behind each grotesque action. Now that’s all very well on paper, but it’s also good to take note that the medium of cinema works in different gear as a novel does. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that a successful literary scribe can craft a credible, disciplined screenplay – and The Counsellor makes for a fascinating court exhibit. McCarthy’s words dominate big on the screen and they pour out from the seams of the frame and out of each character’s mouths, but to fatalistic levels. The biggest problem of The Counsellor is that nearly all of the players in this show talk exactly the same as how McCarthy would write. Suddenly Bruno Ganz’s Dutch diamond dealer, Javier Bardem’s mad-haired, Robert Downey Jr. doppelganger drug kingpin Reiner, Brad Pitt’s middleman Westray, Cameron Diaz’s sexpot vixen Malkina and Ruben Blades’ cartel overlord all become philosophers, ruminating about death and mortality and how greed and evil dominates us all. Near the end of the film, a bartender starts giving life’s advises. And if that’s not enough, Penelope Cruz’s Laura even goes so far as to become a clairvoyant, waxing things like ‘I plan to love you until I die’, which just spoil things up, since she will definitely upset Michael Fassbender’s eponymous man of the law later on in a grim turn of events.
Which leads us to Fassbender’s character himself – a Texan lawyer supposedly employed by his roster of clients to, you know, counsel, but he’s doing anything but. Everyone’s giving him advises instead, making him not only one of cinema’s most inept lawyers but also incrementally passive, naive and self-possessed. Surely anybody with a glib of common sense would rationalise that if you get yourself involved in dealing drugs, there’s 100% probability of shit hitting the fan? Haven’t Walter White told us all that devastating lesson already? Whilst Fassbender is reliable as the eponymous lead, providing enough conflicted, wronged man-on-the-run gravitas, it’s Cameron Diaz who, surprisingly, steals the limelight from everyone here. Mostly saddled with unbearably disposable Hollywood rom-com roles of the not-so-distant past, her take on the amoral and unexpectedly lethal cheetah-tattooed Malkina touches on some dazzling darkness rarely demonstrated by the actress. A character originally slated for Angelina Jolie to play, Diaz more than capably holds her own ground. Her eagle-spread sex scene with the windscreen of a yellow Ferrari bonnet might go down as the film’s most outrageously memorable part of the film, but its her stone-cold, calculating look, her mocking, predatory gaze when she observes the men as they obliviously weigh the Grand Scheme of Things that burns in your frame of mind. Always lurking behind, yet always strategically two steps ahead, ready to strike on her prey at their weakest.
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott | CAST: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Bruno Ganz, Brad Pitt | SCREENPLAY: Cormac McCarthy | DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox| RUNNING-TIME: 117 mins | GENRE: Drama/Crime | COUNTRY: USA