Movie review: The Counselor

By Peter Calder

3 comments
Michael Fassbender plays the title role, upstaged by loud walls and Javier Bardem's haircut.
Michael Fassbender plays the title role, upstaged by loud walls and Javier Bardem's haircut.

British-born director Ridley Scott has made some landmark films (Blade Runner; Alien; Thelma and Louise) and some dreadful tosh (the ponderous Gladiator; the weep-worthy Hannibal; the thoroughly nasty Black Hawk Down). His new one belongs near the bottom of the tosh list but it's not really his fault.

The title's Texas lawyer (Fassbender), who is never named, is head-over-heels with Laura (Cruz) and planning to finance their happily-ever-after by backing a drug deal with a 4000 per cent return. Spoiler alert: things turn to custard. When Laura asks how bad it is, the answer is "Let's say pretty bad. Then multiply it by ten."

A drug deal going wrong is hardly a new story idea but Scott deals with it well.

He fills the screen with his big, dense visuals and takes us in close to his actors - an opening bedroom scene is almost uncomfortably intimate - in a way that demands much of them. He also delivers several spectacular set-pieces: one's a shootout on a desert highway; another involves a high-speed motorcycle and a taut wire at neck height.

But the film's fatal handicap is its point of interest: it's the first original screenplay by the doyen of fiction set in the American Southwest, Cormac McCarthy.

The writer, who turned 80 in July, is famed for No Country For Old Men which the Coen Bros made into an Oscar sensation.

But the list of great novelists who wrote great screenplays is a short one.

William Faulkner wrote The Big Sleep and Ray Bradbury adapted Moby-Dick for John Huston, but it's been slim pickings since.

McCarthy is an intensely visual writer of prose and the gripping, vivid excerpts from this script published in the New Yorker in June were dialogue-free. But with the exception of those set pieces, this film is all dialogue. And it's dialogue that sounds much better than it is.

Cameron Diaz plays her character with a pout.
Cameron Diaz plays her character with a pout.

When the deputy to Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff in No Country looks at a murder scene and says "It's a mess ain't it sheriff?" and Jones replies "If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here", the line works because the actor invests it with an existential bone-tiredness and not a trace of smartarse. What's more, it chimes with our emerging conception of a character that has been meticulously constructed since the film's first frame.

By contrast, almost every line in The Counselor seems to be delivered with one eye on the quote-o-meter. "You may think there are things that these people are simply incapable of. There are not," one character says of the drug cartels; another, told that her remark seems cold, says "the truth has no temperature"; quotes from Shakespeare and Marlowe are scattered about.

The final effect is the narrative equivalent of those poses that body-builders strike: you admire the artifice, but you can't see the point.

Amid all this, the actors struggle to breathe. Bardem, with an even more outrageous haircut than he had in No Country is a martini-sipping cliche with gold chain and rose-tinted aviators; Diaz's sour disdain is hard to distinguish from pouting; and the normally excellent Fassbender's understatement looks like lack of conviction.

For the connoisseur of drug-deal movies, there may be curiosity value in spending time in the cold and lifeless world of this film.

The rest would be advised to keep moving; there's nothing to see here.

Stars: 2/5
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Dormer, Penelope Cruz
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 117 mins
Rating: R16 (graphic violence, sex scenes, offensive language)
Verdict: Underwritten characters spouting overwritten dialogue

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