Most bad movies are failures of inspiration and ambition, barely worth discussing. It takes talent to make a film so creatively, indelibly awful that anyone who sees it is likely to reference it for years to come.
The Counselor is that film. The immense talents behind it are novelist Cormac McCarthy (who wrote the screenplay), director Ridley Scott and a slate of A-list actors. It’s a gorgeous-looking movie, full of glossy surfaces, all-white interiors and scenes that look like “daring” Vogue fashion spreads. (As a drug moll, Cameron Diaz matches her ensembles to two diamond-collared pet cheetahs, a fashion photographer’s idea of “decadence” if there ever was one.)
But Scott has not figured out how to direct the actors so McCarthy’s elaborate, oddly cadenced dialogue flows naturally from their mouths. The result resembles a staged reading of a deconstructed crime “thriller” punctuated by bursts of violence that might be shocking if the portentous monologues hadn’t already oversold them. Sometimes The Counselor suggests Rob Zombie trying to do Samuel Beckett, only with more words.
Granted, McCarthy has crafted an exercise in fatalism, in which both surprises and motivations are beside the point. The titular nameless lawyer (Michael Fassbender) and his colorful friend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), talk at length about the perils of the former’s decision to assist the latter in his dealings with a Ciudad Juárez drug cartel. Coconspirator Brad Pitt is on hand to deliver further warnings when not averring his intention to cleanse his soul in a Tibetan monastery.
Yet we never see Fassbender make a meaningful choice, or do much of anything. (The act that seals his fate is, ironically, an innocent one.) He’s merely an archetypal placeholder for Corruptible Man Who Will Suffer the Consequences, just as his lovely fiancée (Penélope Cruz) embodies Collateral Damage.
Cruz’s opposite number is Diaz’s Malkina, one of those Woman as Destroyer types that Faye Dunaway used to play in the 1970s. (She hangs with cheetahs because she’s a predator — get it?) The only person in the story with meaningful agency, Malkina has a couple of setpieces so lurid they make the film a must-watch for fans of excess. Not for a second does she feel real.
Indeed, Bardem is the only major player here who successfully twists his tongue around McCarthy’s words and creates a character. It’s not that the writer’s dialogue is “bad,” with a few exceptions. (The less said about his romantic scenes, the better.) But, unlike Shakespeare, this script doesn’t play as if it were meant to be played. Conceits, allusions and wordplay that would stun us with their power on the page die when subjected to the natural rhythms of speech. And one may start wondering why characters say things like “The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass” when they could just say, “No one accepts his own death.”
I have no quarrel with the darkness of McCarthy’s vision, nor with his violence — multiple beheadings are a welcome respite from all that talky foreshadowing. What did bother me was how stock, Hollywood, even hokey this film’s version of evil is. The Act of Killing kept me awake at night by documenting a McCarthy-esque scenario in which real people treat savagery as an unquestioned norm. The Counselor kept me awake at night wondering how to forget the scene where Diaz gets intimate with the windshield of a Ferrari.
Granted, both visions were disturbing. But if a woman who fucks a car is really supposed to serve as a harbinger of the coming collapse of civilization, as the film’s last lines suggest, well, it’s going to be an interesting apocalypse.