The Counsellor brings together one of the most impressive line-ups in recent memory, both in front of and behind the camera. There’s undoubtedly a good film and a fascinating story in there somewhere, but it hasn’t found its way onto the screen.
The screenplay here comes from the pen of Cormac McCarthy, best known for his acclaimed novels Blood Meridian and The Road. After the successes of film adaptations The Road and No Country for Old Men, The Counselor is McCarthy’s first foray into the world of original screenwriting himself, and alongside long-time-admirer Ridley Scott they’ve attracted a fantastic cast, with the likes of Fassbender, Cruz, Bardem, Diaz and Pitt all playing a substantial part in the movie.
In theory it’s an enviable line-up which should have afforded Scott a long-awaited real return to form following a series of unremarkable offerings. Indeed, there are some things which are right with this film, there are some great monologues as you’d expect from McCarthy, there are also some finely handled scenes of violence, but this film really falls down at the most fundamental point of the process – the overarching screenplay.
Initially we’re introduced to Fassbender’s ‘The Counsellor’ whilst he and Cruz engage in some unconvincingly intimate cunnilingus. The couple are supposedly madly in love, although their relationship is never believable in the slightest, and this affords Fassbender the motivation to ‘break bad’ and give his assistance to the import of several barrels of cocaine making their way across the Mexican border. It’s during this enterprise that he hooks up with Javier Bardem who’s playing career criminal ‘Reiner’, along with the love of Reiner’s life, Malkina (Diaz), who enjoy keeping two pet leopards that they take out into the desert to hunt down fleeing rabbits. (Some not-so-subtle metaphors going on here, a trait which persists throughout the movie with some pretty blatant foreshadowing as well as further equally cryptic imagery).
Throughout the film there is notably little back story for any of the characters, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows the audience more scope to form their own opinions on proceedings without it being shoved down their throats. This is usually something that I like in a film as it shows the viewer a certain amount of respect and allows the film to act more of a piece of art open to interpretation than a simple A to B story. The only problem with this is that it relies on the actors to bring their own mystique to give their character some weight and intrigue, which none of them really manage. I personally found every single character here either unlikable or simply dull, and I don’t think that Diaz is quite up to the task of adding anything to her character which isn’t already on the page, not for lack of trying.
The remaining cast are also relatively unconvincing – Fassbender’s ‘Counsellor’ is bland even when he comes to a sniveling, blubbering, emotional end. Meanwhile Brad Pitt plays an off-the-peg personality who doesn’t really have a lot to work with and while Bardem’s character is the most interesting of the bunch, even he leaves you straining for something more to engage.
There is absolutely something to be said for some subtlety in a story and leaving some holes here and there for the audience to interpret. The Counsellor, however, feels like one big chasm, devoid of any real interest or originality. You definitely get the feeling that there’s an extremely interesting story unfolding, but we’re constantly on the periphery and there’s not nearly enough substance to sink your teeth into and you’ll be left slightly bored and frustrated.
I did get the impression that this may have worked better as a book, where you’re granted more freedom as the reader to imagine and construct a world around the story. But ven then, I think you’d probably get to the end and have the same nagging feeling have here: “Is that it?”