Day 247: The Counselor

"I think truth has no temperature."
For years rumors swirled that Ridley Scott was going to direct a film adaptation of the best-selling novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, despite the novel's reputation for being unfilmable. As the years passed and nothing came of that collaboration, when word came down that the two men would be working together on an original story called The Counselor, anticipation was high. Scott has floundered of late, in the wake of his resurgence at the start of the last decade with Gladiator & Black Hawk Down, but an original story by one of the most respected novelists of the last 25 years seemed like a can't miss proposition. How did they fare? Read on to find out...
Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a man whose profession as a lawyer to clients both big & small, has given him a taste of the criminal life. Hints are dropped that he's in over his head due to some financial obligations, some stemming from his purchase of a very expensive engagement ring for his fiancé (Penelope Cruz), and he decides it might be time to buy his way into a morally dubious drug deal. The deal is spearheaded by one of his clients, Reiner (Javier Bardem) & his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), and the counselor is warned several times that he's going down a road from which there is no return.
And since it wouldn't be much of a story if everyone lived happily ever after, something does go wrong. The deal goes south, and the drugs go missing, and due to the counselor's tenuous professional connection to a man who ended up dead, his life is now in danger. Another connection to the deal, a mysterious man named Westray (Brad Pitt) advises the counselor to get out of dodge before he or his fiancĂ© come to significant harm, but being a lawyer, he's looking to play every possible angle to get himself out of trouble. 
I hate putting caveats on a film to gauge how well you'll enjoy it, but this one virtually requires them. This film is downright baffling, even for someone well versed in the tropes of genre filmmaking. There is very little information given about anything that is happening at any given moment, and it will be a chore for some audience members to keep up. It feels very much like one of McCarthy's novels, just with all the character development and exposition jettisoned in favor of dialogue that conveys the bare minimum amount of information for the audience to keep pace. It will be an eternally frustrating film for many audience members, and even those who get on its wavelength will be left wanting more. If you were confused and aggravated by No Country for Old Men, you may end up throwing your hands up in disgust at the end of this film.
I can embrace ambiguity when it's done right, such as Brad Pitt's character in this film, but the total dearth of relevant information in this film ended up baffling me more than anything else. In retrospect, I'm beginning to piece things together, but I honestly have no desire to see the film again to see where and how those pieces all fit together. Bottom line, I just don't think this was complete enough as a script to work as a film. This is a case of death by a million tiny cuts. Had the film trafficked in something besides ambiguity, it may have been a more wholly satisfying film, as I think all of the performances are very good, and there are some genuinely great set pieces in the film, but overall, it's just so elusive to me that I'm almost apathetic towards it. 
One other item of note, and gauge your expectations for the film accordingly, but I avoided all the advertising for this film prior to its release. I didn't see any trailers, commercials or ads for the film at all, and went into it completely blind. As a result, I found myself thoroughly confused by the first forty or so minutes of the film, but was able to keep pace enough to get the general gist of things. However, anyone who has seen the trailers will be even more confused because having now watched both trailers that were released, they totally mis-market the film. This isn't anything new, studios do this to films all the time, but if you do see the film after having seen the trailers, you'll understand perfectly well what I mean by that.
As I said earlier, the performances are all very good with Pitt & Bardem being the stand-outs. These are two men who have embraced what it means to be a character actor, and they go for broke with their performances, making the most of what little screen time they both have. Fassbender is equally good, selling the moral ambiguity of his character, and never trying to make him likable. Penelope Cruz is good as well, even though she's only in four or five scenes, she creates this sort of idealized woman that gives the protagonist something to fight for. It's Diaz who surprised me the most, however. I think this is her best work since Being John Malkovich, and she proves here, as she did in that film, that given the right kind of role, she can be used very effectively. 
I would be hard pressed to call this the best work of either Scott or McCarthy's career, and they both do underwhelming work to say the least. The film has no visual flair like the Coens brought to No Country, and the script feels a bit under-developed. Ambiguity is fine in doses or when it's used on certain characters, but when the film is so riddled with ambiguity, it makes it hard for an audience to follow or even care what happens. 
This film is most assuredly not for the squeamish, as many of the characters in this film do not meet with good ends. There are moments of shocking violence, but no less would be expected of an author like McCarthy. If you're a fan of his work and the actors involved in the film, you will probably find a lot to admire about this film, but don't be surprised if the entire experience leaves you feeling hollow. 
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]