“You are a glory”

If I were to compare The Counselor to any other movie I’ve seen of late it would have to be Andrew Dominik‘s Killing Them Softly. Both possess a darkly violent subject matter tempered by a series of off-putting, somewhat out-of-place comedic sequences with a bunch of familiar faces seemingly happy to go along for the ride without worrying about how much screen time they’ve actually accrued. While they could be cousins in tone and overall head-scratching befuddlement where meaning is concerned, however, they are far from the same once you take a step back to calculate their merits. The biggest difference between them in my opinion becomes the fact that while Killing Them Softly felt smart in its contrivances, The Counselor simply wears its fabrication on its sleeve with a smug, gloating smile.

I’m still undecided on whether this manufactured sheen is a result of Ridley Scott‘s directing choices or the script chock full of flowery profundity that novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote for the actors involved to speak in overwrought emotion and stilted accents. It all exudes the feeling of a subjectively nightmarish fantasy that could have perhaps made sense if we stuck with the titular character (Michael Fassbender) for the duration instead of traveling to and from the myriad supporting players introduced with little fanfare and even less to do. As a result, we must believe this is actually the world McCarthy created—a hyper-stylized playground of greedy men and women getting away with as many bad deeds as possible yet still feeling the wrath of God courtesy of a fateful tragedy possibly born from pure coincidence.

The film is built upon the effect actions have on the doer and those he loves, literally showing the aftermath of the Counselor’s newfound involvement in financing a drug trafficking ring with friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) and associate Westray (Brad Pitt) rather than explain what brought them together in the first place. The Counselor is in love with his highly sexualized girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) and money; Reiner with the enigmatic femme fatale Malkina (Cameron Diaz doing her best Katey Sagal from “Sons of Anarchy”) and money; and Westray with his bachelor lifestyle and, yes, money. They each weigh the risks against the spoils to decide in differing measures that little can go wrong if they remain hands-off. But then our Counselor unwittingly performs a favor for a client that secures them a spot on the cartel’s extermination list.

McCarthy’s script is alternatingly too tidy and too obtuse throughout. We know ominous tales of a “bolo” death contraption and snuff films will come back to haunt someone and we grow frustrated when random encounters with characters like Toby Kebbell’s Tony add nothing to the overall picture we didn’t already know. We can connect the dots on a slew of double-crosses happening behind the scenes rather easily because we know everything is shown for a reason. Characters are nervous a room is bugged? It probably is. They wonder if someone is too smart and dangerous to get into bed with? Yeah, they’re probably right. And there’s no way an opening scene of unbridled, joyously infectious love between Fassbender and Cruz can end with anything but absolute tragedy once the game officially begins.

A gruesome affair with decapitations, sliced carotids, and macabre “jokes” like sending a dead body along for the ride on a drug run, it’s also darkly sexual with a story that gives the term “catfishing” a wholly new definition. Everything is shared with a highly-detailed and measured delivery in both the writing and acting to make it seem more theatrical play than film. Yes, Bardem’s Reiner is an eccentric delight with his Brian Grazer hairdo, pet cheetahs, and twinkling smile, but his over-the-top soliloquies can’t help distracting you from believing anything onscreen is real. Fassbender is the only one who appears to be playing his role straight, but while it creates a powerful descent into hell after his world crashes around him, it also makes him a glaringly incongruous piece to the puzzle.

Maybe that’s the intention, though, since his precarious situation was reluctantly bred out of necessity and not a desire for fun. Circumstances beyond his control made financial gain stronger than that of retaining a moral black and white, so of course he will be the one most out of his depth with fear. Unfortunately, his being the central focus and conduit for our own curiosity takes a backseat about halfway through, transforming him into just one more player with an extremely short shelf life. What started as a film about one man’s disastrous fall ends up a darkly comic exposé on the perils of the drug trade and the chaotic violence it brings. No one is more important than the next and all eventually prove helpless to escape the fates one has carefully drawn up for each.

If this big picture was introduced at frame one, I probably would have enjoyed myself more because I wouldn’t have invested in a character as replaceable as those he encounters. While his “mistake” putting them all in danger warrants the film being titled after him, he’s sadly the least interesting of the bunch. I blame this on McCarthy and his inexperience with screenplays that aren’t first fleshed out in book form. Instead of a coherently focused piece of commentary it simply exists as a failed experiment full of MacGuffins that do nothing but pad the runtime without payoff. Is there more to Édgar Ramírez’s priest,John LeguizamoGoran Visnjic, or Natalie Dormer? Who knows? We barely scratch the surface of the main characters so any desire for insight into the rest is a fool’s errand and perhaps part of some elaborate joke.

Score: 5/10 

Rating: R | Runtime: 117 minutes | Release Date: October 25th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Ridley Scott
Writer(s): Cormac McCarthy