Review: The Counselor (Scott, 2013)

Javier Bardem Cameron Diaz

I was intrigued to watch Cormac McCarthy‘s most recent direct-to-screen storytelling venture, The Counselor. Despite (or because of) the violence and darkness that pervades most of his novels, McCarthy’s dialogue-heavy, action-packed novels consistently get made into movies. Cases in point: All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road have all been turned into commercially successful films. Even his bleak Southern gothic Child of God, about a necrophiliac murderer, caught the eye of James Franco, who premiered his adaptation of the novel at the Venice International Film Festival last August. Strangely enough, I haven’t seen any of these films, though I’ve read all the novels.

The Counselor also boasts a star-studded cast, with big names Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, and bit parts by Rosie Perez (from Do the Right Thing) and John Leguizamo (uncredited). And, not least of all, the director himself: Ridley Scott, maker of such blockbusters as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Gladiator, albeit his more recent films have seen less success.

But the film blew all these perfect ingredients with a convoluted and ultimately meaningless tale about drug-running in the Southwest (a favorite McCarthy theme and setting). Some critics trounced it for being cruel and violent and bleak, which McCarthy has always been and will always be, leading other critics to defend it with self-righteous statements such as, “its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays.” Both sides seem off the mark to me. The failure of The Counselor is one of storytelling, not of message, but it is most definitely a failure.

On one level, the editing is simply atrocious. Snapping from one 30-second scene to the next with only tenuous connections to the main characters, the film seemed to expect a great deal of attention and figuring from its viewers. A little bit of this can make the audience feel smart, but too much makes us tired and confused, unable to focus on the important points of the narrative. It also calls for a satisfying and clever “reveal” at the end–our reward for all that work–whether plot-based or character-derived, neither of which The Counselor delivers. As the ending credits began, I embraced my frustration and shouted at the TV, “What? That was it?!” All that ado for nothing.

On another level, I believe the failure is very much Cormac McCarthy’s. It is in his dialogue, which tries as always to carry so much–in this case too much, full of sound and fury (a dead, fatalistic fury), signifying nothing. Of course, his style is what we usually love about McCarthy, though even in his novels I find him laughably heavy; still, there it belongs, in the slowness and expansiveness of his words, not in the frenetic world of an action movie. He must also include all his favorite elements, whether they fit or not. Most are relatively innocuous–bits of untranslated Spanish just complicated enough to make you wonder what you’ve missed, the dark, intentionally poetic fatalism, the seemingly random conversation(s) with a working class Mexican man whose purity of spirit is the only beam of light in that dark fatalism–but many more of these elements distracted from or even derailed the narrative. (I could not help but think that, thematically, The Counselor is the mutilated brother of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.)

The bad elements:

1) Violence: It is not surprising that a man who thinks good literature must “deal with issues of life and death” would include graphic and detailed violence in his tales. But there is violence that operates with the narrative and violence that overshadows it. In The Counselor, descriptions of various ways of dying crop up several times with seeming irrelevance. Their enactments are then executed meticulously and creatively, with much consideration given to how to achieve the maximum level of horror. If more consideration had been given to developing a coherent story and less to depicting violence, the movie might have been made to better effect.

2) The Wise Mexican: Oftentimes McCarthy’s novels include one or more Wise Mexicans, usually old men who speak in prophetic riddles. But the riddle is mostly for the reader and not the protagonist, who constantly seeks the advice of the Wise Mexican and takes some comfort or stock in his words. McCarthy, it seems, could not do without his Wise Mexican in The Counselor. The inclusion seems nothing more than an indulgence as the Jefe (Rubén Blades), supposedly a high-ranking member of a drug cartel, has but one scene wherein he delivers portentous but unhelpful words to the Counselor (Fassbender). The words evoke the same tone and mood of the epilogue in Cities of the Plain but seem completely out-of-place in the film.

3) The Romantic Hero: McCarthy’s Border Trilogy heroes are capable, laconic, courageous men whose downfall is their romanticism (whether of woman, of family, of wolf, no matter). In the Counselor we have a man who has chosen to romanticize a woman (Cruz). But his is a character without substance. It is difficult to care about his love, which has no origin or meaning beyond beauty. It is difficult also to care about him because we don’t know who he is. We only know that he has gotten trapped, must suffer. It is all due to a major character flaw–greed perhaps, the script suggests, or something else, some mistake he made. The references are cryptic, meant to keep his motivations obscure from us. Unfortunate, because understanding his motivations would likely make us care more about him. Logistically, it is a coincidence that undoes the Counselor. Sadly for him, no one believes in coincidences in this world he has decided to enter. For no plausible reason other than that Border Trilogy heroes all have this particular destination, the Counselor winds up in a seedy Mexican establishment. Because destruction is McCarthy’s game, that is where destruction finds him. Woe is he, but I couldn’t care less about his tears.

One-dimensional performances all around. Not the actors’ fault, though; they haven’t much to work with–a slice here, a sliver there hardly build anything substantial. Anyway, it’s life and death (mostly death) we’re supposed to care about, right? Not who performs it.