Everything you need to know about The Counselor can be seen in the fact that its main character goes unnamed. He’s a lawyer, played by Michael Fassbender, and he’s only ever addressed by colleagues as “counselor,” if they bother to address him at all. That he remains nameless is either meant to symbolize his insignificant role in the world or the way we’re all defined as much (or more) by our jobs as anything else. It’s also a thin, derivative trick that grows tired in minutes. The film isn’t deeper for leaving its protagonist unnamed, but that’s the kind of Big Important Metaphor the film keeps coming back to time and again. It’s like shorthand for philosophical insight. This is depressing for any number of reasons, not least because the screenplay is by Cormac McCarthy, in his first work directly for the big screen. And McCarthy does some good things here, and director Ridley Scott choreographs a few solid scenes. But it’s impossible to go more than a minute or two without being tripped up by the film’s off-key gimmicks and broadly telegraphed symbols. For every fragment of a good idea or scene that starts to come alive with McCarthy’s muddy poetry, there are dozens more brought down by empty-headed, clumsy rhapsodizing and lessons so obvious they don’t even need to be learned.
McCarthy’s not interested in plot, but motivation. The point here isn’t what’s happening, or even to whom, but why it’s happening at all. As such, what looks from far away like a crime thriller set in the drug trade, and upon closer inspection might be a moral inquiry into the nature of evil, is, when you get right up to it, a series of increasingly disconnected monologues that obfuscate character and leave the viewer cold. It’s not that motivation isn’t worth exploring; it’s that nothing like that is actually happening here. Characters drift around, chasing drug money, sex, and power, and the film’s bland observations — drug cartels are dangerous, criminals are often untrustworthy, etc. — feel even dumber when there’s no real character or narrative to attach to them. Art’s power to explore a theme is diluted when the art in question is simply a series of obtuse speeches given by interchangeable people.
The story is hung around a few characters: the counselor (or The Counselor, I guess), a wealthy lawyer looking to earn even more money by going in on a drug deal; Reiner (Javier Bardem), his business partner and connection to the Juarez cartel; Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a manipulative climber who is every bit as dangerous as Reiner thinks; the counselor’s love interest, Laura (Penelope Cruz); and Westray (Brad Pitt), a criminal who also helps the counselor get lined up to import drugs from Mexico to Texas. The deal goes bad — it has to, or there’s no movie — but what’s irritating is how many coincidences seem necessary to trigger different parts of the story. (At one point, the counselor volunteers to help secure the release of a nephew of one of his clients, and the young man turns out to be tied to the cartel in ways that make life unpleasant for the counselor. But if he hadn’t sprung him on a whim, nobody else’s plans would be feasible. You get the idea.) So before things go south, different pairs of characters take turns ruminating on what it means to be bad; after, they wonder what it would take to be good. That sounds a lot better on paper than it looks on screen, too.
McCarthy’s also given to visual metaphors brought somewhat clumsily to life by Scott, chief among them Reiner’s pet leopards, a pair of wild beasts kept in an unnatural habitat and only released to hunt and kill, matched with Malkina’s two-toned leopard-colored hair (and cat’s-eye makeup, to boot). As if Diaz’s stilted, overly enunciated line readings and total lack of guile weren’t enough, we’re told in no uncertain terms that she’s a hunter and killer. It’s not that visual patterns are bad by definition, either. Here, though, you can feel them trying so hard to mean something that the overriding vibe isn’t one of meaning or synchronicity, but uncomfortable strain. Scott’s recent work has felt somewhat sloppy and undistinguished, and The Counselor often recalls Prometheus in the way it favors elliptical story and empty speechifying over compelling narrative and voice. I cannot stress this enough: there is nothing here. It’s shadows and light, wisps of smoke and pure suggestion. It’s a film so empty, jumbled, and forgettable that it’s draining just trying to recall the experience of watching it.
What’s most surprising is how, for a movie all about people talking through moral complexities, there’s so little to say about the final product. The performances are capable but forgettable, smothered by a film that doesn’t know what to do with them and a story that doesn’t know what it wants to say so it might as well try to say anything that comes to mind. The inevitable descent into murder, pursuit, and paranoia would feel a lot more interesting if Scott and McCarthy were committed to telling a story with real style and command, with an actual voice and worldview, instead of just kicking a can down the road a while. You could pick any five scenes at random and rearrange or excise them with no effect on the film, narratively or emotionally, and that’s always a bad sign. No two pieces seem to go together, and troublingly, nobody involved seems to care. Perversely, the most revealing scene turns out to be a story told in flashback, as Reiner tells the counselor about an evening when he and Malkina were parked alone and she expressed a desire to offer her body amorously to his convertible. Without another word, she removes her underwear, exits the car, mounts the windshield with her legs splayed wide, and begins to grind against the glass. Reiner, in the passenger seat, gazes on, more horrified than aroused by what he can only describe as a “catfish” kind of image. He tells the counselor that the whole thing was so weird, so uncomfortable, so plainly and sadly exhibitionist, that he’d do anything to just forget it and move on. It’s the only truthful moment in the film, because I now know exactly how he feels.