Michael Fassbender is sexy like a shark, and sleek as a sports car. His chin is chiseled and hard, forever confident, but his smile is subterranean, hiding secrets we could never guess. As compelling an actor he is, perhaps there’s almost too much depth to this classically pretty face, one that cannot help but come across as predatory, salacious. He’s an unlikely choice to be a wronged man (albeit morally corroded) in the middle of a suspense thriller, and yet here he is, apparently meant to be likable and relatable at the center of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s reptilian “The Counselor.”
Unnamed, and coincidentally deeply underwritten, Fassbender’s Counselor begins the film in bed with Penelope Cruz’ seductive Laura. They look great together, and their bedroom patter is at once spartan and sensual, as per McCarthy’s traditional instincts. The characters in “The Counselor” don’t talk about anything other than talking about what they’re talking about, spinning in circles around the nature of words and meanings, dropping clever bon mots in the middle of playful, and sometimes deadly, verbal chess matches. It’s a wonderfully offbeat beginning, seeing these two beautiful specimens in bed, their hands exploring each other, carefully considering a sort of roleplay as they toy with each other under the sheets. But it is unusual to establish Fassbender’s Counselor as a master of seduction as he makes Laura climax within moments. Then again, it’s pretty easy to showcase a character’s fall from grace once they’re introduced naked in bed with Penelope Cruz.
The Counselor is a lawyer, though the film doesn’t stop to explain for whom exactly or for what. Instead, we skip between his various meetings with shady criminal types, each of whom has involved him in a complex drug transaction (the plot mechanics of which are fairly convoluted). It's a deal that he believes will keep his hands clean enough to marry Laura, who is basically a stock love interest. Primarily, he associates with club owner Reiner, played by Javier Bardem with manga hair and a splotchy tan that suggests an overdone sausage still sizzling over the grill. The two of them have a casual rapport that keeps gravitating back and forth between professional and hyper-familiar, but Reiner’s oversharing, and Bardem’s gregariousness, doesn’t fit with Fassbender’s taciturn sarcasm. Whatever past history these two have is frustratingly vague, and when their relationship is challenged by rising stakes, there’s almost no dramatic weight to what’s supposed to be elevated tension.
The bulk of the film consists of talky meetings where characters wax philosophically about the nature of their actions and greed, crimes and punishment, all suggesting to The Counselor’s face that he’s going to be the one to eventually take the fall. Brad Pitt’s cowboy entrepreneur Westray pretty much draws a diagram suggesting that he’ll ultimately be a victim, not-so-subtly insulting The Counselor’s intelligence to his face. Fassbender’s unfazed countenance suggests a long con of sorts, perhaps hinting that this everyman is going to outfox the competition. Except, bewilderingly, it’s clear early on that he earnestly believes he’ll be able to take his lump sum and retire with his future bride, and Fassbender’s Armani suits and curt conversational style are as far as the everyman as you could get. It’s as if “The Man Of Steel” was ninety minutes of supervillians shit-talking Superman, then casually sticking kryptonite in his face without even pretending it’s a surprise.
The picture’s many long-winded monologues (almost every character has their own speech) touch on pretty basic ideas about death and crime, but the primary topic seems to be about the corruptive properties of desirable women. Cameron Diaz is borderline wolf-like as Reiner’s main squeeze Malkina, sneering her dialogue like a wannabe Ellen Barkin, peppering every conversation with digressions about her unstoppable sex drive. We’ll all look back at this and have our own stance, but right now it’s quite a bit to process a scene where Diaz’ Malkina pulls up her dress, does a split against the windshield of a convertible, and thrusts to climax against the hood as Reiner gawks, bug-eyed. That moment plays out as a comic anecdote delivered by Reiner, and it’s an amusing throwaway moment of sexual insecurities and confusion. It would have landed harder had Diaz (and her stunt double) not been placed in that demeaning position.
Then again, this is Ridley Scott we’re talking, a filmmaker who has distanced himself from subtlety for years. The strength of Scott’s work is compositional clarity, not complexity, and he attacks the dialogue scenes in repetitive lumps, failing to do justice to McCarthy’s chatty prose. The story is straightforward but the conversations are elliptical and meandering, and Scott’s aesthetic is less penetrative and inquisitive, and more Rocco Siffredi Ferrari Commercial. Stripped by genre trappings, his tableaus are tacky and fetishistically untouched. None of the film’s characters seem like they’re familiar with their own surroundings, and there’s no time or place to Scott’s country-hopping locales. It’s sad, but this is the sort of grimy material that his late brother Tony would have nailed, correctly emphasizing the debauched nature of this criminal enterprise and being less reverent, and more playful, with McCarthy’s words, living up to the spirit more than the letter.
There’s also a bit of misfortune that “The Counselor” is largely making a point seen in two recent foreign films, Claire Denis’ upcoming “Bastards” and Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch Of Sin.” Both elegantly weaved narratives that illustrated the harsh reality of how violence trickles through the cracks in society’s class structures, carefully deploying a sense of righteous anger at the inequities of their respective societies. Here, it feels more simplistic and far less righteous, drawing a line between the order of this financial high life and the corruption and arbitrary violence of lower-class Mexico day laborers, a comparison that only comes across as condescending when we’re asked to feel for The Counselor’s white collar plight. The matter in which the “haves” in the film use the “have-nots” for manual labor, and how it’s bound to bite them in the ass, is emphasized by the repeated closeups of Malkina’s pet cheetahs, who hunt freely for her pleasure before being chained up and placed back in custody. That Reiner is oblivious to Malkina’s own plot to usurp his power is clear enough: the fact that she has elaborate cheetah tattoos dotting her back is the sort of touch that suggests Scott not only thinks audiences won’t understand what “The Counselor” is about, but that he feels the need to remind himself as well. [C-]