Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor: Cormac McCarthy's First Original Screenplay

     You couldn't have put the pieces together any better: Cormac McCarthy--arguably the greatest living American writer--turns in his first ever screenplay. The story is vintage him, dealing with drug smuggling on the Texas/Mexico border and a group of morally ambiguous characters performing violent actions as often as they wax poetic about the nature of man and life vs. death. Filling the roles of these characters is a group of actors that any cinephile could get excited about: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz (okay, not her), and Penelope Cruz. Even director Ridley Scott was promising--though lately he hasn't any films that could be considered classics, he had the talent to make The Counselor a slick and sexy thriller. And The Counselor is slick and sexy; unfortunately, it's a lot of other things too: messy, confusing, scattershot, and downright weird.
     Fassbender stars as "Counselor", a lawyer who deals with seedy clients who get in too deep with criminal situations. He represents the type of people that come up to him in restaurants years later and threaten him for not doing a good enough job. Not long after the opening credits, the counselor decides to get involved with a group of gaudy and eccentric characters in a drug-smuggling operation involving the Mexican cartel and a pump truck full of raw sewage. There's a couple, Reiner (Bardem) and Malkina (Diaz), who live an extravagant lifestyle filled with a contemporary mansion, expensive cars and exotic animals. Reiner is a charismatic drug kingpin who's also insecure and would rather not think about consequences than face them head on. Malkina is dangerous in our own right, with ulterior motives and a penchant for using her sexuality to transfix other characters. Soon, once things start going incredibly wrong, the counselor realizes that he in too deep. Far too deep. Brad Pitt shows up as Westray, a mystery man who has dealt with the counselor's employers in the past and gives the counselor advice in verbal puzzles. And Penelope Cruz, as the counselor's fiance, provides the counselor with something to fight for once she inevitably becomes involved.
     The best part of The Counselor is also the worst part about it: Cormac McCarthy's script. The author of a few of the best American novels ever written--Blood Meridian, The Road, The Border Trilogy--creates a weird mess of a plot that jumps around cities and characters, introducing us to some people who play an integral part and others who have the same amount of screen time but don't offer anything useful other than some intellectual dialogue that doesn't pertain to anything specific about the story. A word that some may come up with is "pretentious", though I don't agree with that: Cormac's script is always colorful and interesting, but it eventually grows a little tiresome when you want more of a climax instead of an extended conversation about the nature of man.  If anyone has seen The Sunset Limited, the HBO adaptation of a play that McCarthy wrote, it delves into similar territory--a lot of talking, and not much resolution: better suited for a novel than a major motion picture.
     The cast hams it up with plenty of effort, and The Counselor contains a few scenes that are laugh out load funny (one involving Diaz's character doing a nude split on the windshield of a car) or nerve-wracking (one involving a torture device that has to be one of the worst ways to die ever). In particular, I found Bardem and Diaz to be the most interesting characters: Reiner with his flashy wardrobe and personality but with a naive fright under the surface and Malkina with her smiling maliciousness and utter disregard for whoever she screws or screws over. Director Ridley Scott does a serviceable job that echoes his late brother Tony's work: sleazy, sexy and sometimes all over the damn place.
     Overall, The Counselor is just a bit silly. It doesn't seem realistic, and it doesn't come close to anything that McCarthy has ever written (at least the 8 out 10 novels I've read) in terms of staying power or having a reason to even exist. It has occasional moments of greatness and plenty of WTF moments that make you question why someone didn't edit this film down into more of a tightly-packed thriller. There's barely a bit of character development, and that's a major problem when the film is filled to the brim with potentially interesting characters. I wouldn't go as far as saying that I regret watching it, but The Counselor is too much exposition and not enough excitement.    (C+)

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