I’ll say this for The Counselor: the misery escapes through the screen, settles in the pit of your stomach and – congratulations! – makes you miserable. The Counselor may be the most unpleasant movie experience of 2013, at least intentionally. (I’m not sure that’s what Snitch was going for.)
To the outside observer it looks like a thriller. The Counselor stars sexy men Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem, sexy women Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz, and features drug deals gone awry, multiple decapitations and sex with a car. It’s directed by Ridley Scott, who makes important-looking popcorn films with important-sounding titles like Legend, Black Hawk Down and Prometheus. It was written by Cormac McCarthy, who… oh, I think I see what happened here.
The man behind such downer dramas as The Road and No Country for Old Men appears to be trying to top himself, structuring a simple criminal cautionary tale around a series of portentous conversations about death, guilt, existentialism and why women are just awful. It would appear if The Counselor is any indication that a prerequisite for a life of crime is at least a Master’s in Philosophy. We’ve come long way since 1961, when West Side Story told us that the prerequisite was a much cheerier two years of jazz tap.
Fassbender stars as lawyer who – for no discernible reason – decides to join Bardem and Pitt in a drug deal that quickly goes sour. Fassbender is held responsible, even though he had nothing to do with the suspicious turn of events that ruins the transaction. An unseen cabal of amoral monsters puts all three men in the cross hairs, but takes their sweet time about it so everyone can sit down and talk seriously for extended periods instead of running down city streets and shooting at each other like Hollywood tells us they’re supposed to.
Meanwhile, Fassbender’s wife Penelope Cruz lingers on the sidelines waiting to become collateral damage and Cameron Diaz strokes pet cheetahs and shows off her cheetah tattoo because in Cormac McCarthy’s and Ridley Scott’s world, she's kind of like a cheetah. Spoiler alert, I suppose. God knows these storytellers thought it was such an important observation that they treated the obvious metaphor like it was a twist ending.
Ridley Scott shoots The Counselor as a series of gloomy acting exercises, punctuated with lush cinematography and sporadic spurts of violence. The cast – particularly Brad Pitt – works wonders with the languid screenplay, bringing characters to life who by all rights don’t appear to be living at all. They’re trapped in a pitiless miasma of self-reflection and felonies committed for their own sake. Lip service may be paid to Fassbender’s money troubles, but that doesn’t stop him from affording a diamond engagement ring large enough to choke a chicken.
It’s a testament to Scott’s enormous abilities behind the camera that The Counselor is watchable at all, and an equally enormous feather in the cast’s collective cap that they bring vigor to a story that barely qualifies as a story. It’s a melancholy treatise in inevitable disaster that no action, apparently, can undo or derail. All anyone in The Counselor can do is think long and hard about what they’ve done. All we can do is wonder what the hell they did.