Halfway into watching “The Counselor,” a man with a gruff voice behind me in the audience proclaimed, “What the hell is this?”
Perhaps this nameless voice uttered some sort of truth about a film more concerned about the moral complexities of human existence from its characters, than having its audience engrossed with a plot about a drug deal gone terribly wrong.
Taken from the first script of author-turned-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men,” “All the Pretty Horses”), director Ridley Scott’s (“Blade Runner,” “Gladiator”) latest appears, on paper at least, to have the components of a neo-noir classic in the making that ranks with the genre’s best, such as “L.A. Confidential,” “Blood Simple” or “Memento.”
But the film ultimately falls short.
Set in west Texas, a McCarthy staple, Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Hunger”) plays the title character, the Counselor, who decides to make a drug deal worth $20 million with Reiner, the drug king of El Paso, played by Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”), who appears to have stepped off a runway with Derek Zoolander.
Also in on the deal is Westray, played by a Nudie-suit-wearing Brad Pitt.
The dialogue from these characters is some of the most profound and humorous screen dialogue one will hear all year, reflective of McCarthy’s powerful prose, but these words never lead up to the emphatic moments one may expect from these men in corrupt professions.
These characters know if something goes wrong, which in films about drugs such things usually do, their lives will be in peril. These men know what comes with the territory if the deal goes wrong, but like so many that came before them, the sentiment of “this can’t happen to me” ultimately amplifies their greedy temperament.
What makes these characters so engaging, but ultimately shallow, is that these men are not bad people.
Yes, they are drug dealers, and McCarthy wants us to think he is adhering to the conventions we associate toward drug dealers. But these men are more concerned about their sex lives with their girlfriends and life after death, than with the subtle details of their organized drug deal – a deal that Reiner convinces the Counselor will occur without the slightest glitch.
All this banter leaves one confounded when violence erupts in the last 20 minutes of the film. Unfortunately, it might leave one feeling guilty for not caring, as some of the characters perish in wind-swept Texas.
Bardem appears to be having all the fun in the film. He tries to spread the cheese with his co-stars, but the only one who reciprocates is Cameron Diaz, who plays Malkina, Reiner’s lover who has him dumbfounded and shaking in his knees every time she enters the room. This assumption is best exemplified in a scene that involves a yellow Ferrari and Diaz doing a split. I will leave it to the imagination as to what occurs.
Her femme fatale persona ultimately instills more unintentional laughs than fear, as the film continues toward its fatalistic wormhole.
PenÃ©lope Cruz’s character, Laura, comes and goes throughout the film, as Fassbender’s love interest. She is oblivious to the Counselor’s seedy transactions. Her demeanor carries an aura of sweetness to counter the bitter tone that pervades the narrative.
One may wonder what the material may have looked like aesthetically if given to another filmmaker such as the Coen brothers, but Scott, taking a more diplomatic approach to the script, never fully unleashes the absurdity that hovers over the characters and the story McCarthy wishes to tell.
Instead, we get a fragrance ad disguised as a film from a great director and an even better writer.
The result is an unfilling experience that makes one think Reiner and Malkina’s pet cheetahs will start chiming in on the very subjects its characters fail to comprehend.
(Only because of the script.)