Considering the swathe of negative reviews and the dearth of publicity, coupled with the opening 5 minutes, an embarrassing, wordy and decidedly unsexy sex scene between Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz, I figured The Counsellor to be dead on arrival. A half hour later and I was engrossed, and thrilled to be wrong in my premature evaluation.
The Counsellor is a film that has not been underrated, rather over-hated. It is wordy and it is at times dense, obtuse even but the supposed “lack of suspense” that is mentioned in almost all these negative reviews is not something I noticed. From lengthy conversational scene (the film is composed almost entirely of dialogue sequences) to lengthy conversational scene, this film dances around you and keeps you out of the loop, tantalising you with glimpses of the darkness beneath and within, behind, around every single character.
Fassbender’s nameless, titular Counsellor, is looking to enhance his already lavish lifestyle and does so by becoming a financier of a drug trafficking syndicate located near the Mexican/US border. As expected, things go awry as a tanker full of cocaine goes missing and The Counsellor is understood to be involved. He of course isn’t, but this doesn’t stop the cartel from making his life very Hellish indeed.
It has echoes of McCarthy’s last cinematic adaptation, No Country For Old Men, in it’s steely, austere tone and it’s sun-scorched setting. Not to mention another solid, strange performance from Javier Bardem and another wacky hair-do. It’s caustic orange/yellow/green hues make it decidedly reminiscent of Breaking Bad and Dean Norris has a telling, albeit slight cameo.
Reference points though are few and far between. Ridley Scott ventures out into new territory, which is insane for a man 4 decades into his career. A feat equalled and mirrored by Martin Scorsese who’s The Wolf Of Wall Street provides a decent comparison to elucidate the one biggest flaw The Counsellor bares. While TWOWS explored a similar set of themes, drugs, money, gratuitous sex, it revelled, it was fully aware of it’s own absurdity and it was fun. The Counsellor is stone-cold serious to the point where it can at times be quite laughable.
12 Years A Slave cast mates Fassbender and Brad Pitt both one up their performances from aforementioned period picture while Cameron Diaz slinks from scene to scene scaring the dicks off of everyone who goes near her. Penelope Cruz loses out for her characters single faceted innocence, a naif with little to do but sob, giggle and inevitably be used as collateral.
(I know at this point it’s redundant to moan about Oscar’s but Fassbender, Diaz and McCarthy should have at least entered the conversation. Rather, it feels as if this film never was in contention, like it never really existed.)
Despite his unflattering portrayal of women (whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, both female leads are one-note in their convictions) Cormac McCarthy’s script, his first, following numerous cinematic adaptations of his novels, is monstrous. He wields words with an adeptness I don’t think I’ve seen in cinema, and frankly, a great deal of it went over my head.
And that’s a good thing, because a good film should have to be decoded, it should develop in your mind each time you view it, shedding layers and opening itself. This is a film I shall certainly be dipping into again and again, and I’m sure each stomach churning consequence will remain as visceral as this first viewing.
– Oliver Drew