The Counselor (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Most of the time, I preface my reviews with a brief plot summary as to what one might hope to expect from a movie in question. But approximately fifty minutes into “The Counselor,” written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, I still had no idea what was going on. There are images to be seen and dialogue to be heard but there is nothing to be processed and compiled to create a sensical narrative arc.
Still, I did not find the movie to be egregious on every level. On the contrary, there are a few scenes dispersed throughout that inspired me to look closer to the screen either due to a strong performance or the rhythm of the dialogue being effortless and magnetic.
Two scenes stand out. The first involves the meeting between a man only referred to as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and an even more enigmatic gentleman called Westray (Brad Pitt), the latter of which has been involved in the drug business for years. The magic between their interactions lie in the performances. Fassbender and Pitt play their characters cool, calm, and collected—like reunited old buddies sharing a drink—but the unsaid—silent moments where they measure each other up—suggests that something very bad is going to happen to one or both of them. And it does.
The second involves the counselor’s visit in prison because he is appointed by the court to deal with a woman (Rosie Perez) whose son is in jail because he is unable to pay a speeding ticket. It is memorable in a different way—with respect to Westray and Counselor’s meeting—because one is playing a certain level of toughness, almost aggressive but never completely obvious and the other is more relaxed, almost taking his job lightly or as a joke. The interplay between Fassbender and Perez is executed with a whiff of playfulness but at the same time we are left wondering if there is more to it than meets the eye.
Figuring out how subplots interconnect is a challenge because the script offers very little connective tissue as the picture moves from one scene to another. It is like being given an incomplete mathematical formula and expecting us to arrive at the right answer. I wondered if the writer intended it to be this way. Is the big picture not supposed to matter? Are we only meant to understand or be entertained by individual scenes? What is the target audience? It functions as a thriller but is not accessible enough to be a good one.
The film should have been called “Westray” because I did not at all care about Counselor. Though Fassbender attempts to emote by invoking desperation, fear, or grief, I felt nothing toward his character. The problem is that the central character is not written to pass as a whole person. He has the charm, the confidence, and sexual magnetism but we never get the chance to get to know him on a personal level other than the fact that he loves a woman (Penélope Cruz). As a result, the emotions come off false. On the other hand, Westray is played straight—a smooth talker, very little emotion. And yet I cared what would happen to him. He talks big but can he back it up when it counts most?
“The Counselor” is a mess but I was never bored by it. It made me laugh when I probably was not supposed to but it is much better than just waiting for the film to be over. There is a very funny scene where Fassbender engages in a sort-of phone sex—awkward, pointless, and amusing. There is also a pair of horrifying sequences involving beheadings. It dares one to keep watching. It is really too bad that the material fails to form a coherent whole.