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Review: The Counselor (2013)

The Counselor (2013)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Premise:  A lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets involved in a onetime drug deal and quickly gets in over his head.

What Works: The Counselor was directed by Ridley Scott, a filmmaker who dependably creates interesting and memorable imagery. In movies like Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven Scott demonstrated considerable skill in creating story worlds that were distinct and convincing. Despite its shortcomings (which are many), The Counselor is well shot and has some striking and stylized visuals. The film also has a notable performance by Javier Bardem as a fast talking drug dealer. This role is unlike anything Bardem has played before and the movie is most watchable when he is on screen.

What Doesn’t: Despite its established director and a generally impressive cast, The Counselor is a catastrophic failure of a movie. It has some technical problems, such as in its soundtrack; dialogue that was rerecorded in postproduction is noticeably dubbed and the lip movements of the actors are sometimes out of synch with the words they are speaking. But the major problems of The Counselor are not slight filmmaking miscalculations; this is a movie that goes wrong in nearly every respect and its problems start with the script. The Counselor was written by Cormac McCarthy, a novelist whose work has been adapted by others into successful films like The Road and The Sunset Limited. The script for The Counselor was an original work and it is an example of how the storytelling skills of prose fiction, especially of a writer as literary as McCarthy, do not necessarily translate into cinema. Narrative filmmaking requires conflicts and set pieces that are visual in nature and conveyed through movement, either of the players or of the camera. The Counselor is a gab fest in which characters lounge around and exchange banter that varies between genuine wit and pretentious stupidity. There is no story here and certainly nothing that can be described as a coherent plot. The film comes across as a random collection of scenes that are not connected to one another. Exacerbating the flaws of the overrated No Country for Old Men, the conflict is minimized and even avoided. Where No Country for Old Men at least had a suitcase full of money at stake and the pursuit of the cash gave the film a shape, there is nothing in The Counselor for the characters to compete over. In short, nothing happens. The Counselor has no rising action and the filmmakers manage to botch basic cinematic storytelling. The handling of its characters is among the film’s most egregious mistakes. Few of the characters are introduced properly and it’s never clear who anyone is, what they want, or even why they are in the story. As the movie goes on new supporting characters enter and exit the story, often to deliver mysterious soliloquies that aren’t relevant to anything. The cast of The Counselor is filled with high profile movie stars including Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Rosie Perez, and John Leguizamo but their star power is distracting because many of these actors only appear in a couple of scenes. The casting creates an expectation that these people are important figures in the narrative but virtually none of these people has a story of their own or even a story function. They literally just appear in the movie in what amounts to glorified cameos and disappear without contributing anything to the story. The casting of Cameron Diaz is especially distracting. Diaz is not an actor of range; she can do some comedy but in The Counselor she is cast as a femme fatale, a role she is utterly ill equipped to play.

Bottom Line: The Counselor is a frustratingly bad movie. The picture has some extraordinary talents involved but that makes its failure all the more disappointing. To say it is a train wreck is unfair because train wrecks are at least watchable.

Episode: #464 (November 3, 2013)