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Critics Show No Mercy for Ridley Scott's 'The Counselor': "It's just bad Cormac McCarthy" (REVIEW AND ROUNDUP)

by Anne Thompson
October 24, 2013 2:07 PM
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Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in "The Counselor"
Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in "The Counselor"

A-list director Ridley Scott can round up his pick of top Hollywood talent, and did so with elegantly violent border thriller "The Counselor," which opens Friday. Unfortunately, the first screenplay written by novelist Cormac McCarthy tries to spice up a torrid fish-out-of-water crime thriller with the kind of cryptic existential literary language (read: pretentious) that is better read than spoken. 

Nothing rings true in this "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" tale, which hangs on the slender idea that a good man genuinely in love with a good woman can make a tragic mistake in the name of greed. One great scene between Bruno Ganz as a diamond dealer and a love-lorn lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who chooses a stunning 3.9 carat stone with which to propose to his beloved (Penelope Cruz), sinks under the weight of McCarthy's ponderous dialogue. The film's central problem: this lawyer is too confident and dense to figure out the calamity of his relationships with his partners in a $20 million drug deal, including the venal but charming creatures played by the entertaining Brad Pitt as a womanizing businessman and Javier Bardem as a garish Versace-clad nightclub owner (more bad hair) whose nasty girlfriend, played by Cameron Diaz (allowing her Hispanic roots to shine through), is smarter than all the men, which of course they do not recognize.

The actors are not at fault. While Fassbender looks sleek in Armani suits and can carry a movie like this, the writing does not serve him well. This glossy studio picture works overtime to shock us with carnal sexuality (one scene with Diaz splayed on the windshield of a car has to be seen to be believed) and spurting violence (think "Se7en"), as we take bets on which characters will survive by film's end. In some ways this darkly amoral movie is more Tony Scott than Ridley; the filmmaker seems to be channeling his late brother. The shooting style is visually impeccable, as always, from exotic cheetahs on the run to gorgeous Spanish vistas, but makes us appreciate the perfect match of filmmakers and writer when the Coen brothers met McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men."


The portentous, emotionally vacant film The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, plays like a parody of a Cormac McCarthy adaptation. Every gloomy and bloody outcome, most taking place along the border between the U.S. and Mexico and all having to do with a drug deal gone bad, is foretold. Every speech marks the cruel power of greed and condemns not just the weakness but the very smallness of mankind. It’s derivative nonsense. The baffling thing is, McCarthy did write The Counselor. It’s his first original screenplay. The Counselor is not faux McCarthy; it’s just bad McCarthy.


The trailers for Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” make it look like the kind of gonzo crime thriller his brother Tony used to make. Au contraire, this Cormac McCarthy-scripted potboiler turns out to be a chillingly detached, borderline-sociopathic account of how getting mixed up in a Mexican drug deal can ruin the lives of all involved. (Hint: It’s a good way to wind up pickled in septic barrels or headless in a landfill.) What might have made a mean, sinewy indie thriller escalates in budget, but not necessarily excitement, as Scott and an appallingly miscast group of A-list stars fumble their way through thickets of dense philosophical dialogue, alienating audiences who would’ve happily settled for a more conventional genre movie.

New York Times:

Mr. Scott’s seriousness isn’t always well served by the scripts he films, but in Mr. McCarthy he has found a partner with convictions about good and evil rather than canned formula. The movie’s title may make cruel sense — the Counselor is a man who himself takes no counsel — but a truer encapsulation of its worldview is “No Exit.”

Hollywood Reporter:

Despite its scaldingly hot cast and formidable writer/director combination, The Counselor is simply not a very likable or gratifying film. In fact, it's a bummer. Set mostly within a certain elite, mostly American adjunct to the corrosive Mexican drug trade, Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay features some trademark bizarre violence and puts some elevated and eloquent words into the mouths of some deeply disreputable figures. The main characters may be twisted but they're not very interesting and, crucially, you can guess, as well as dread, what's coming from very early on. The stars, exotic sex and creative violence will draw an audience looking for classy cheap thrills, but widespread disappointment will yield less impressive box-office numbers than such an illustrious package would ideally generate, at least domestically.

AV Club:

The film looks spectacular, even as it basically swipes its color palette from No Country, and Scott stages the violence—a doomed getaway attempt, brutal highway fatalities—with his usual icy technical proficiency. No amount of needless chatter can quite dilute the power of The Counselor’s grim endgame, especially given the way its writer and director conspire to keep the threat offscreen, like some terrible, unseen force of nature. Still, it would have been nice if the movie didn’t veer so dangerously close to outright misogyny.

New Republic:

The Counselor is a very bad film, and I suspect that a lot of the actors knew that already as they did their work. It lacks clarity, plausibility, suspense, and purpose. But it has two lovely cheetahs and the exquisite elegance of Bruno Ganz, Now, if only some real director had had the idea of letting Ganz simply talk to those aloof cats for a couple of hours. In black and white, on the shores of Hartlepool?

The Playlist:

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.

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More: Reviews, Ridley Scott, Ridley Scott


  • Anne Thompson | November 1, 2013 1:24 PMReply

    She called it, I fixed.

  • isaac | November 1, 2013 2:31 AMReply

    Shavonne, she said hispanic roots, not mexican

  • Dan Forsley | October 26, 2013 5:42 PMReply

    I liked it.

    Someone suggested that the cheetahs might have been a digital film creation and not really there after all.

    You just gotta love the movies even if they're bad. This one was a lot of fun.

  • Mike | October 27, 2013 9:20 AM

    the actors confirmed they were real, and the budget would have been much more than 25mil if they weren't real. They in fact were the only actors on set with good dialogue.

  • Shavonne | October 25, 2013 11:48 PMReply

    Mexican roots??? Cameron Diaz is Cuban, not Mexican. Get it straight.

  • Brian | October 25, 2013 10:57 AMReply

    Based on everything I've read about THE COUNSELOR, GRAVITY, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, I'd much rather see THE COUNSELOR than the other three films--combined!

  • Stephen | October 25, 2013 9:28 AMReply

    All of the reasons the critics used aren't enough to make this a bad movie, it just didn't live up to their personal preferences. I still want to see it, it still looks intriguing to me.

  • Stephen | October 25, 2013 9:30 AM

    "chillingly detached, borderline-sociopathic" sounds awesome to me.

    "The bulk of the film consists of talky meetings where characters wax philosophically about the nature of their actions and greed, crimes and punishment" so what?

  • donovan | October 25, 2013 7:10 AMReply

    Critics say the movie does not explain why the Counselor entered a messy deal. It's been said before that GREED is the reason. One doesn't have to have a more legitimate reason (like financial difficulty) to be attracted to an illegal deal promising easy money. Greedy people amass more and more wealth. The counselor is greedy; but, this does not have to be explicit in the movie.

  • Mike | October 27, 2013 9:22 AM

    one of millions of reasons not to like this film is that greed is not the explanation, and every possible explanation is undermined by something in the film. So the only reason is to have some semblance of a plot.

  • senda | October 24, 2013 10:16 PMReply

    lol, excuse me while I turn to tactfully savor my Schadenfreude.

  • Lola | October 24, 2013 9:27 PMReply

    it's divisive but not bad. some great moments. Cormac McCarthy wrote it the way he wanted to. the screenplay was released as a book last week. If anything it's Ridley's fault for not making the MOST of what Cormac supplied.

    and you failed to include the 5 stars reviews from Manhola Dargis and Richard Roeper .

  • Mike | October 27, 2013 9:29 AM

    First of all, you failed to mention that Roeper is a very bad critic. Also, McCarty is the entire blame, as I've read the screenplay three time, and it's singularly bad. Say what you want about his novels, he can't write for the films. Ridley openly complained in a press conference that McCarthy oversaw every aspect of the film, and won most arguments on the overall vision, so blame McCarthy. I hate Ridley's films, but he did the best that could possibly be done with the script, besides a from-scratch re-write.

  • sergio | October 24, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    I actually liked the film despite it's pretentiousness and it's genuine "feel bad" movie. It's definitely the kind of stuff that major studios aren't making today and at least I can be grateful for that. (And that final scene with Pitt is fanatstic!)

    But I would HATE to be at a dinner a party sitting next to McCarthy. I would ask him to pass the biscuits and he would instead give me a verbose 10 minute speech on the futility of life before he grabs a knife and cuts off my head.

  • LATONIA WILLIS | October 25, 2013 12:46 AM


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