There are lots of ways it could have gone wrong, and The Counselor flirts obsessively with most of them. A meeting of the minds between director Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy – who wrote the novels No Country for Old Men and The Road – The Counselor (his first original screenplay) is somehow absolutely dreadful.
Ostensibly, it’s about a drug deal gone south. An El Paso attorney (Michael Fassbender) partners with the enigmatic local drug lord (Javier Bardem) to get a score in the $20 million range, but when a courier for the Mexican drug cartel they’re working with winds up dead, the counselor emerges as suspect number one. Oh, by the way, you don’t want to make enemies with Mexican drug cartels.
The setup is simple, and in a more direct narrative, it probably would have been OK given the assembled talent. Unfortunately, McCarthy has overwritten The Counselor, the novelist’s first original screenplay, and the characters, explaining nothing along the way but always planting clever turns of phrase within long, boring existential riffs that surround the plot and sound wildly unlike anything career criminals would say to get their point across.
Most of the performances are bad. Brad Pitt and Fassbender are less so, but they’re also in the current Oscar favorite, 12 Years a Slave, so the stench of this one won’t last for them at all. Cameron Diaz, on the other hand, is given a much larger role as the action intensifies (and regrettably, longer monologues). It looks for all the world that she does not understand the sentences she’s spouting. Some of that is on her just not being a very convincing actor, but most of it is on McCarthy creating characters unrealistic for his own world.
For all you hear about studios monkeying with the visions of filmmakers, this is one despairing example of what happens when nobody says “no” to the powerful writers and directors.
THE COUNSELOR, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy. Rated R, 117 minutes. Opens Friday.