The Counselor has a big-name director and an all-star cast, but it got some people buzzing because it is the first screenplay by celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy. There has been a checkered history of novelists writing screenplays. Most of them have adapted their own works, or worked for hire, like William Faulkner. A novelist writing an original screenplay, not on spec, is unusual and reason to prick up one’s ears.
Unfortunately, McCarthy has crafted a screenplay that is long on attitude but short on coherence. Ridley Scott, who directs, does the best he can, but one wonders if he and McCarthy had any story conferences, where Scott may have asked McCarthy, “Just what the fuck is going on here?”
The plot concerns drug cartels, a common enough subject in films today. These guys have become the de facto villains of the modern era, replacing Nazis and even eclipsing Arab terrorists. If there’s anything we understand about life from movies, it’s don’t cross a drug lord from south of the border.
That lesson is painfully learned by the title character, an otherwise unnamed man played by Michael Fassbender. He is a lawyer working in El Paso, but wants to get his hands dirty participating in a drug smuggling venture, masterminded by one of his clients, a louche nightclub owner played by Javier Bardem. From there on, I can’t tell you much, not because it’s a spoiler, but because I don’t know for sure. I think that things go sour when a young man, ingeniously decapitated while riding a motorcycle, is linked to Fassbender because he bailed him out of jail at the behest of a client (Rosie Perez). But I’m not sure.
I am sure that there are other key members of the cast. Brad Pitt plays a sleazy middleman who offers Fassbender a lot of advice. Cameron Diaz is Bardem’s girlfriend, who may be calling the shots. In an early scene we see her and Bardem watching his pet cheetahs hunting jackrabbits. Diaz is obviously supposed to be the human version of a cheetah, because if we didn’t get it already she has a cheetah pattern tattooed on her back. Diaz is the most lively character in the film, if only for the scene in which she rubs her privates on the windshield of a Ferrari.
McCarthy often writes about good and evil, and while there is lots of evil the only good character is played by Penelope Cruz, as Fassbender’s innocent fiancee. Cruz isn’t given much to do other than look innocent. Everyone else is pretty much despicable, including Fassbender, who after Cruz gets kidnapped is very sorry, but of course he put her in danger in the first place.
There are a lot of novelish touches, including the sage speeches by Pitt and a long conversation between Fassbender and a cartel bigwig played by Ruben Blades, who basically tells Fassbender there is nothing he can do about saving Cruz. Evil is pretty remorseless, isn’t it?
The major problem with this film, which isn’t outright awful, is that one never knows what the characters are on. A septic truck, full of drugs, passes in possession from one group to another, and we never really know who is responsible for doing what. I gave up on that pretty early, and just enjoyed the sinister desert ambience, but that’s not enough to sustain a film.
My grade for The Counselor: C-.