Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Ridley Scott, Cormac McCarthy. What a cast and crew. You’ve got some of the finest working actors, a brilliant writer, and a legendary director; together, they make up a massive chunk of the power behind the most critically and commercially acclaimed movies—and books, in McCarthy’s case—of the past two or three decades.
So when when it was announced that all of these luminaries would be working together on “The Counselor,” heads began to turn and the Internet hype machine began to churn. Trailers were released, showing sleek, tightly shot scenes; a strong, memorable crime thriller seemed to be on the horizon.
Unfortunately, as these star-studded collaborations occasionally do, “The Counselor” largely disappoints, often confusing more than it thrills and providing little reason to relate to the characters, even if said characters are portrayed by some of the finest working actors around.
Centering on the border between the United States and Mexico, “The Counselor” focuses on a nameless lawyer identified only as, yes, the Counselor. He (Fassbender) lives a life of luxury in southern Texas, with a beautiful girlfriend, Laura (Penélope Cruz), and a wealthy business partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem, whose hair in the film lies somewhere between your typical Backstreet Boy and an actual porcupine). From there, the Counselor falls down the rabbit hole, beginning a foray into drug smuggling that ultimately threatens him and those he cares about. Also involved are Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s girlfriend, who herself is a major power player, and Westray (Brad Pitt), another member of the smuggling ring who serves as the Counselor’s main advisor.
While the film has an interesting concept with clear potential, McCarthy and Scott fail to structure the film in an engaging way. They deal with multiple large organizations and complex hierarchies, and the film fails to help the viewer piece the narrative together. This isn’t to say that viewers should be coddled by films, but there are at least three points in the film where I was entirely lost in terms of where the characters were and why exactly they were doing what they were doing. The dialogue doesn’t help the confusion, either. Characters speak both simultaneously at breakneck speed and cryptically; they have a clear idea of their situation, but the same can’t be said for the viewer.
What’s more, the film has moments that feel downright unnecessary. I don’t consider myself a prude, but there are several scenes of violence and sex that the film has not necessarily earned. The teaser of the film is a sex scene that precludes any real exposition, and there’s a scene involving Cameron Diaz and a car that I simply don’t feel comfortable writing about. The same can be said of the film’s violence, as several characters are brutally decapitated.
These moments should feel emotionally intense, but, because of the confusing nature of the narrative, they feel out of place and jarring. The nature of the film’s context (the drug wars in Mexico) left the potential for some interesting social commentary, and while there are one or two strong moments in which the film addresses this framework, they are ultimately few and far between. Instead, Scott and McCarthy use the brutality of the violence in an attempt to create some sort of shock-commentary.
There’s a lot of potential in “The Counselor,” especially in the film’s characters. All of the actors are clear professionals and perform to the best of their abilities, but our protagonists are too despicable to be liked, and the most relatable characters, like Laura, aren’t given enough screen time to be a focus of the film. Not even the titular Counselor is relatable; his mystery and lack of name tie the film to the stellar 2011 crime film “Drive,” but whereas “Drive” featured an intriguing, mysterious protagonist, “The Counselor” doesn’t have that same charm. Fassbender is a fantastic actor, and he has some truly tragic and emotive moments, but he’s too verbose to be captivating; instead, he’s just inexplicably under-explained.
There’s a difficulty in disliking a film like “The Counselor.” A crime thriller featuring such a strong cast and crew seems tailor-made for lovers of “Drive” and “The Conversation,” like myself. But, at the end of the day, “The Counselor” simply perplexes, lacking a clear narrative and relatable characters. If nothing else, “The Counselor” is the very bane of the modern hype machine, proving that even the strongest casts and crews can disappoint. If you’re looking for a strong thriller, “The Counselor” falls flat. As for me, I’ll just watch “Drive” again.