‘The Counselor’: Out of order

October 24, 2013


Ridley Scott is one of those overrated directors who, every once in a while, puts together a hard-edged, lean little film that skips his identifying visual trademarks and choices of style over substance and just delivers the goods.

“The Counselor,” unfortunately, isn’t one of those efforts. For a change, however, the film’s problems are less the result of Scott’s choices than those of his writer.

Which is disappointing because the script is by Cormac McCarthy, in his first foray directly into screenplay form. McCarthy stay true to the stark nihilism of his novels; like them, this films tends to be a little touch-and-go when it comes to the survival of our species in the face of our own innate brutality.

We’re doomed to make the mistake that ends our own lives or those of the ones we love. That’s McCarthy’s perpetual message, whether in his novels or films from his novels, like “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men.” That mistake usually involves being human.

But when you read McCarthy’s novels, that Old Testament violence, often with a scriptural overlay, never cloys because McCarthy writes dialogue that plays on the page. Scott apparently didn’t notice that, when these characters stand up and start talking in front of a camera, they can be ponderous bores.

For his cinematic debut, McCarthy has taken a pass at a particularly popular strain of gangster story: the one that says you can’t cross Them, because They will hunt you down without mercy. It’s been done well on film as recently as last year’s sadly underappreciated “Killing Them Softly.” This strain includes the entire oeuvre of George V. Higgins, not to mention Elmore Leonard.

Like them, McCarthy is a writer of sudden violence, but his self-importance combined with Scott’s make an uncomfortable fit.

The result feels enervated, rather than disciplined. Scott and McCarthy set up their little math equation and it is solved just that neatly. But solving for X never gets the juices flowing. In a lot of ways, this film reminds me of “The American,” a film I liked (and a lot of people hated). Except that this film lacks that film’s elegance or sense of twisted honor.

Michael Fassbender is the Counselor, about to marry Laura (Penelope Cruz). Obviously an attorney used to collecting large fees, he still can’t resist an unspecified extracurricular activity involving Mexican drug cartels, a motorcycle courier and a hazardous-waste truck filled with bricks of heroin.

Something goes wrong, something goes missing – and what started as “I wouldn’t get involved with these people” turns into “They will hunt you down and kill you.”

That’s true of everyone he gets involved with as well, including Javier Bardem (as his rich enabler) and Brad Pitt (as his no-nonsense partner). There is no “if” – there is only “when,” in terms of their untimely ends.

McCarthy offers unholy fillips of extravagantly violent imagery: a description of a horrifying snuff film, and a bit of lore about a particularly baroque strangulation device. He seems to take a sadistic glee (or perhaps that’s Scott’s tonal choice) in the inclusion of each grisly little setpiece.

Fassbender shows another layer of what is obviously a deep talent, in service to what ends up as melodrama. The transition from confidence and competence to the first wrinkles of fear and on into abject horror is one of degrees, but Fassbender negotiates it with more finesse than McCarthy’s script.

“If I were you, counselor,” is the preface to a lot of dialogue in this film. If I were you, I’d skip “The Counselor” and try one of McCarthy’s better books.

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