By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 24, 2013 at 2:07PM
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.