Ridley Scott is one of those directors whose films are automatic must-sees, even if the filmmaker is going through a rough patch creatively. Scott has had a number of ups and downs in his career, but remains one of the most in-demand directors working today. Love him or hate him, you just can't keep him down.
Scott's newest movie, "The Counselor," is playing now, and is notable if only for the fact that it was based on the first original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, the beloved American author of "Blood Meridian," "No Country for Old Men," "The Road," and "All the Pretty Horses" (more on that in a minute). It features a stellar cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Rosie Perez, Cameron Diaz and, in the title role, Michael Fassbender, who plays a greedy lawyer who gets in over his head with a drug deal gone wrong.
While the title might suggest a John Grisham-style legal thriller, this is a very, very different beast altogether. But how good is "The Counselor"? And what, if anything, should you expect?
WARNING: Slight spoilers ahead.
1. It's Incredibly Cormac McCarthy-y
Say you stumble into "The Counselor" without knowing that it's based on a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy (this would also mean that you weren't paying attention during the nifty opening credits sequence, so shame on you), but about five minutes in, you'd already have that pretty much figured out. The best McCarthy adaptations, like "No Country for Old Men," are able to capture the author's relentless plotting and his punctuation-free philosophical views, leaving the latter as delicious subtext underneath all the outlaws, lawmen, and post-apocalyptic cannibals. The problem with "The Counselor" is that McCarthy is there, in every frame, in every stitch of dialogue, which has everyone speaking in philosophical conundrums, no matter their station in life or educational background. This can get, well, a little grating. The dialogue is always delicious, but it's hard to imagine everyone on the Texas/Mexico border weighing the cosmic scales this dramatically all the time.
2. It Could Have Been a Play
And, all that said, you could have easily, save for a few key sequences, filmed "The Counselor" as a play. McCarthy didn't dream big with his first original screenplay; virtually every sequence involves two characters talking, most of the time with one of them sitting comfortably. It's a testament to Scott's unparalleled talents as a premiere stylist to make these scenes pop with va-va-voom excitement.
3. There Are Lots of Cheetahs
For some reason, "The Counselor" is full of cheetahs. Javier Bardem's character, a kind of shady criminal figure, owns a pair of cheetahs that he takes out to the country to watch them chase down rabbits. Diaz's has tattoos of cheetah spots that run down her shoulder and onto her back. And, at one point, Fassbender takes his girlfriend (Cruz) out to a romantic dinner and there's a cheetah just chilling in this bar. Uh. Okay. Not sure what the cheetahs are supposed to be doing, metaphorically, but it's amazing nobody called fish and wildlife on at least one of these characters.
4. Each Actor Seems Like They're Trying to Out-WTF the Other Actors
Javier Bardem has a shock of hair that looks like he stuck his finger in an electrical socket (and wears clothes that suggest he's blind). It appears that Penelope Cruz was pregnant during filming, so she's always sitting down or in weird dresses designed to obscure her belly or shot from behind. Edgar Ramirez, one of the most exciting young actors working today, shows up for a 30 second scene where he plays a flustered priest. Rosie Perez has a psychic dream that her son has been brutally murdered. Brad Pitt has shoulder length hair and dresses exclusively in affected western-style clothing. And Cameron Diaz wears nail polish that looks like mirrored chrome, suggests she's of Barbadian descent (yes, like Rihanna), and, well, we'll get to that in a minute... It is literally like almost every actor in "The Counselor" is trying to out-WTF each other with extreme embellishments and character eccentricities. It's like a grand, garish pile up of outrageousness.
5. Cameron Diaz Has Sex With a Car
Speaking of outrageousness... Cameron Diaz has sex with a car. Not in a car. With a car. Javier Bardem describes the act, with Diaz rubbing her crotch against the windshield of a Ferrari, as "too gynecological" to be sexy, comparing it to a catfish that sucks its way up the side of an aquarium. The sequence is funny, weird, and truly unforgettable. It's the impressive crescendo of the movie's singular strangeness.
6. Michael Fassbender Is a Drab Leading Man
As out-of-control as everyone else is in the cast, Michael Fassbender, who just last year turned in a wonderful performance for Scott as the android David in his unfairly over-examined "Prometheus," is totally meh here. Not only is his American accent barely passable (and that's being charitable), but as a character, The Counselor (he's never addressed by his name) is vague to the point of being a whispery collection of traits. When the noose really starts to tighten in the movie's last act, Fassbender's titular character becomes an even more passive protagonist. He doesn't seek revenge. He doesn't try to get answers. He hides. And cries. A lot.
7. It Is Punctuated With Moments of Extreme Violence
For those out there who are squeamish, just know that "The Counselor" is punctuated by moments of extreme, truly grotesque violence. These are some of the more shocking moments Scott has committed to film, and please keep in mind he was the man who orchestrated the chest-burster sequence in "Alien" and the space abortion in "Prometheus." Also he cut off poor Andy Garcia's head in "Black Rain." Man do I love "Black Rain."
8. There's a Chance Your 'Breaking Bad' Withdrawal Will Temporarily Be Relieved
In "The Counselor," there are drugs sneakily concealed, deadly double-crosses, and even a brief appearance by Dean Norris, so much so that for some stretches of the movie I found my "Breaking Bad" withdrawal temporarily satisfied. But that quickly faded, especially because I could barely understand what was happening in the movie...
9. The Central Plot Is Annoyingly Vague
So we understand that Fassbender's Counselor is involved in some kind of drug deal... That also involves Bardem and Pitt... But we're not sure what each man's role is in the scheme, or why Fassbender is in this predicament in the first place (although early in the movie we see him travel to Amsterdam to buy a wedding ring for Cruz). There's a septic tank from Mexico packing drugs, various bands of murderous goons, and yet little in the way of connective tissue between these plot threads. Sometimes this sense of disorientation is thrilling, but most of the time it's infuriating. Sequences come and go without rhyme or reason and you get the impression that the film's sequence could be reedited in a number of ways with no bearing on the actual plot of the movie.
10. It Tries to Say Something About the U.S. and Mexico But Never Really Does
Maybe the greatest missed opportunity is for the film to say something about the murders in Juarez, Mexico, carried out largely by cartel thugs that literally leave thousands of innocent people dead every year. There is some kind of mainstream thriller that can be told with that backdrop, as the FX original series "The Bridge" proved earlier this year, but "The Counselor" never engages in any socially relevant politics. It just uses the real-life tragedy as foggy context for the movie's own brand of ultra-violence. At one point a character wanders through a vigil for one of the murder victims. You can feel the movie try to engage and then... it never does. An apt description for the whole movie's jarring problems.
"The Counselor" is in theaters now.