October 23, 2013

Review: In Over His Head – No Country for 'The Counselor'

It's hard to make out exactly what The Counselor is. From legendary director Ridley Scott and Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) making his screenwriting debut, it's a unusual merging of cinematic storytelling techniques, continuing to explore ruthless characters, nihilistic themes, and the dark side of humanity. What comes is a strange, brooding crime drama that's just as aimless and overly stylistic as it is senselessly grim.

Michael Fassbender portrays the eponymous, unnamed protagonist saddled with the film's basic, unsatisfying and underwritten narrative. He plays a materialistic lawyer looking to invest in the world of drug trafficking as an easy means to maintain his luxurious lifestyle and spoil his fiancée (a barely seen and under utilized Penélope Cruz). It's also entirely distracting having everyone call him "the counselor" constantly for no apparent reason other than his profession as a shady lawyer and to necessitate his lack of a proper name (or character development).

Cameron Diaz is easily the standout of the cast but not altogether or necessarily in a positive light. She puts it all out there (literally and figuratively), doing some undeniably fascinating work as the slick, duplicitous girlfriend of Reiner (Javier Bardem, who played the antagonist in No Country), a charismatically flashy drug lord. Her motivations are never revealed yet she seems to be pulling the strings at every turn. Her machinations, gaudy dress, and caked-on demeanour are from another film universe entirely as she plays a sort of extra sexed-up Bond girl and villain caricature (something Bardem also played in Skyfall) all in one. In a randomly brief aside, she has sex with the windshield of car narrated by Bardem in a graphic flashback scene for some reason. It's exactly as bizarre as it sounds.

The film is stripped down to its bare essentials. Scott's lavish, lush cinematic style clashes with the bleak, grimy vision of McCarthy and his penchant for exploring the necessitates of violence in our world. We know this drug deal is going bad, very bad from the onset (characters say as much) as it does almost immediately while Scott explores the repercussions of bad things happening to bad people for almost its entire running time. McCarthy's material is far more effective treated with subtlety and nuance. Whereas here, Scott hammers down the disturbing, humanistic themes bluntly and starkly.

Scott opens the film with Fassbender and Cruz in bed having an awkward post-coital exchange to establish their relationship. We don't care. It has little impact when bad things start happening. Infused afterward are issues of Catholic guilt and blunt themes of redemption and absolution after doing bad things. A priest even bluntly states "nothing is unforgivable" before admonishing Diaz for her lack of beliefs. Characters are double-crossed without explanation or reason at almost every turn.

Only Brad Pitt, as the colourful cowboy middleman, seems to have fun or realize what film he's in, playing a sort of the cipher like the voice of God and reason. Nothing much is ever revealed as characters talk around their illegal business dealings avoiding any dynamic development. Well-known actors like Édgar Ramírez, Rosie Pérez, John Leguizamo, Dean Norris, and Goran Višnjić show up very briefly for inconsequential scenes or left turn asides to tangentially homer down the ugliness of their surroundings.

There's very little action and no real set pieces in the film. The Counselor is very theatrical in that way. It's easy to see how Scott assembled such an impressive cast. Almost the entire film consists of separate, often sporadically disconnected scenes featuring usually only two actors talking about exactly what's going to happen next in one lavishly set room after another. Unfortunately, these scenes are mostly disjointed and fail to create any sense of momentum, instead of building an artificial tension towards scenes of definitive violence and depravity.

The Counselor doesn't earn the grim themes of greed and fatalism it goes to great lengths to address. Full of graphic, bizarre violence as consequences to the sins of its characters, Scott and McCarthy never find or come near the artistic and thematic balance of No Country for Old Men. It largely wastes its talented actors, never redeeming or showing them anything but being in over their heads. It's a dark film for darkness sake and not much else, lacking heart or emotion to justify all its agony. Barely a narrative film even in the loosest sense, it leaves you wanting a shower to cleanse yourself of its bad deeds.

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