Nothing would be easier than teeing off on Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor.” Oh, the jokes we could all make at the film’s expense – at, for instance, the tortuously literary tough-guy dialogue by Cormac McCarthy, and the high-gloss decadence of sadistic rich folks watching cheetahs running down rabbits over afternoon martinis. And, a while later, engaging in sexual congress with the windshield of a Ferrari.
Sorry, I’m not playing that game.
Two things are stopping me.
1. You can’t combine film and literature the way Sir Ridley is trying to in this movie, but I admire him for trying anyway. It’s a wildly ambitious thing for a filmmaker to do, even if it falls down with an echoing thud.
2. Scott’s shooting of the film was stopped in the middle for more than a week while he flew from London to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of his action maestro moviemaking brother Tony, who had just jumped off a Los Angeles highway bridge to his death.
So let the mockery come from elsewhere. I’m abstaining.
I can’t tell you it’s a good movie, either. It’s interesting and occasionally shocking, but mostly it’s an absurd film that tries valiantly to find a correlative visual style to the tough guy Darwinian literary soliloquizing of McCarthy in the script.
In theory, it could have been amazing if Scott had pulled it off – a wildly attractive and idiosyncratic cast pretends to be high-living lowlifes on the Tex-Mex border in a philosophically venomous tale of a drug scheme that goes very wrong.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the gleaming, sun-drenched noir look that great cinematographer Darius Wolski has given the film. And the impressive actors are giving Scott whatever they’ve got, even if it’s not enough – Michael Fassbender as a lawyer deeply in love with sexually enthralled fiancee Penelope Cruz; Javier Bardem as his wild-haired business partner in a new bar and a drug transaction; Cameron Diaz as his partner’s jungle cat girlfriend; Brad Pitt as the scheme’s silent partner and the fellow who sniffs out impending disaster long before everyone else.
Also on the plus side, are all the film and TV imagineers these days smartly doing everything they can to give us movies worthy of the real world horrors that happen routinely on the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border (TV’s “The Bridge” most prominently before this).
We know now, from “Breaking Bad” and the Coen brothers’ McCarthy adaptation of “No Country for Old Men,” just how compellingly harrowing a landscape the Southwestern desert can be in the hands of a great Hollywood inventors.
But it would be hard for the best people anywhere to carry off dialogue like this explanation by Bardem of Fassbender’s (The Counselor’s) appeal to women: “They can sniff out the moral dilemma. The paradox … They’re drawn to it. Not sure why. Maybe it’s just that lacking any moral sense themselves they’re fascinated by it in men. You think about it. You want to know if a guy has issues, watch the way women react to him … Men are interested in flawed women too, of course, but their illusion is that they can fix them. Women don’t want to fix anything. They just want to be entertained. The truth about women is that you can do just about anything to them except bore them.”
Bardem is such a witty actor that he can almost get away with his character’s weary, pseudo-cutesy Maileresque misogyny in this film, but too many of the other actors – especially Diaz who’s game enough to couple with a Ferrari’s windshield – can’t really give these ultra-literary blocks of dialogue the sound of anything that might actually be emitted by human beings in conversation.
So it’s a little like watching the landscapes of “Thelma and Louise” in congress with rancid Hemingwayesque prose.
Noble maybe. And admirable. And utterly and completely misconceived as a movie.
There’s a gender morality pageant underscoring the whole tale here, but to really get at it you’ll have to read McCarthy’s full, uncut, unchanged script which has been published in a Vintage Paperback edition (184 pages, $14.95).
Along with the sexual kink and frankness, there is, when the plot fully gets in swing, a fair amount of brutal violence. This Mexican drug cartel and its imitators have an apparent fondness for beheadings, whether achieved by sharp, thin wires strung across dark highways for speeding motorcyclists or pedestrians on city streets at the mercy of an incomparably nasty device called a “polito.”
You can’t blame the actors in this cast. They’re working for Scott, and the script is by the man whose novels have been turned into such films as “The Road” (on whose aesthetic power Scott impressed enough to launch this) and “No Country for Old Men.”
When you hear the dialogue, try, in your mind’s ear, to hear it put across by actors with a more conspicuous stage background. Who knows? Maybe they’d have been able to get across McCarthy lines that Diaz and others struggle with.
“The Counselor” takes you to a very dark place slathered brilliantly with sinister sunshine. It kills some people. And then it asks you to listen to people talk about it who seem to be in love with the sounds of their own voices.
Two and a half stars (Out of four)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 117 minutes
Rating: R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and profanity.
The Lowdown: Scummy rich folks on the Tex-Mex border get involved in a drug scheme that goes awry.