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Review: ‘The Counselor’ Starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz & Brad Pitt

Review: 'The Counselor' Starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz & Brad Pitt

Michael Fassbender
is sexy like a shark, and sleek as a sports car. His chin is chiseled and hard,
forever confident, but his smile is subterranean, hiding secrets we could never
guess. As compelling an actor he is, perhaps there’s almost too much depth to
this classically pretty face, one that cannot help but come across as
predatory, salacious. He’s an unlikely choice to be a wronged man (albeit morally corroded) in the middle
of a suspense thriller, and yet here he is, apparently meant to be likable and
relatable at the center of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s reptilian “The
Counselor
.”

Unnamed, and
coincidentally deeply underwritten, Fassbender’s Counselor begins the film in bed with
Penelope Cruz’ seductive Laura. They look great together, and their bedroom
patter is at once spartan and sensual, as per McCarthy’s traditional instincts.
The characters in “The Counselor” don’t talk about anything other than talking
about what they’re talking about, spinning in circles around the nature of
words and meanings, dropping clever bon mots in the middle of playful, and
sometimes deadly, verbal chess matches. It’s a wonderfully offbeat beginning,
seeing these two beautiful specimens in bed, their hands exploring each other,
carefully considering a sort of roleplay as they toy with each other under the
sheets. But it is unusual to establish Fassbender’s Counselor as a master of
seduction as he makes Laura climax within moments. Then again, it’s pretty easy
to showcase a character’s fall from grace once they’re introduced naked in bed
with Penelope Cruz.

The Counselor is a
lawyer, though the film doesn’t stop to explain for whom exactly or for what.
Instead, we skip between his various meetings with shady criminal types, each
of whom has involved him in a complex drug transaction (the plot mechanics of which are fairly convoluted). It’s a deal that he believes
will keep his hands clean enough to marry Laura, who is basically a stock love
interest. Primarily, he associates with club owner Reiner, played by Javier
Bardem
with manga hair and a splotchy tan that suggests an overdone sausage
still sizzling over the grill. The two of them have a casual rapport that keeps
gravitating back and forth between professional and hyper-familiar, but
Reiner’s oversharing, and Bardem’s gregariousness, doesn’t fit with
Fassbender’s taciturn sarcasm. Whatever past history these two have is
frustratingly vague, and when their relationship is challenged by rising
stakes, there’s almost no dramatic weight to what’s supposed to be elevated
tension.

The bulk of the film
consists of talky meetings where characters wax philosophically about the
nature of their actions and greed, crimes and punishment, all suggesting to The Counselor’s face that he’s going
to be the one to eventually take the fall. Brad Pitt’s cowboy entrepreneur
Westray pretty much draws a diagram suggesting that he’ll ultimately be a
victim, not-so-subtly insulting The Counselor’s intelligence to his face.
Fassbender’s unfazed countenance suggests a long con of sorts, perhaps hinting
that this everyman is going to outfox the competition. Except, bewilderingly,
it’s clear early on that he earnestly believes he’ll be able to take his lump
sum and retire with his future bride, and Fassbender’s Armani suits and curt
conversational style are as far as the everyman as you could get. It’s as if
The Man Of Steel” was ninety minutes of supervillians shit-talking Superman,
then casually sticking kryptonite in his face without even pretending it’s a
surprise.

The picture’s many
long-winded monologues (almost every character has their own speech) touch on
pretty basic ideas about death and crime, but the primary topic seems to be
about the corruptive properties of desirable women. Cameron Diaz is borderline
wolf-like as Reiner’s main squeeze Malkina, sneering her dialogue like a
wannabe Ellen Barkin, peppering every conversation with digressions about her
unstoppable sex drive. We’ll all look back at this and have our own stance, but
right now it’s quite a bit to process a scene where Diaz’ Malkina pulls up her
dress, does a split against the windshield of a convertible, and thrusts to
climax against the hood as Reiner gawks, bug-eyed. That moment plays out as a
comic anecdote delivered by Reiner, and it’s an amusing throwaway moment of
sexual insecurities and confusion. It would have landed harder had Diaz (and
her stunt double) not been placed in that demeaning position.

Then again, this is
Ridley Scott we’re talking, a filmmaker who has distanced himself from subtlety
for years. The strength of Scott’s work is compositional clarity, not
complexity, and he attacks the dialogue scenes in repetitive lumps, failing to
do justice to McCarthy’s chatty prose. The story is straightforward but the
conversations are elliptical and meandering, and Scott’s aesthetic is less
penetrative and inquisitive, and more Rocco Siffredi Ferrari Commercial.
Stripped by genre trappings, his tableaus are tacky and fetishistically
untouched. None of the film’s characters seem like they’re familiar with their
own surroundings, and there’s no time or place to Scott’s country-hopping
locales. It’s sad, but this is the sort of grimy material that his late brother
Tony would have nailed, correctly emphasizing the debauched nature of this
criminal enterprise and being less reverent, and more playful, with McCarthy’s
words, living up to the spirit more than the letter.

There’s also a bit
of misfortune that “The Counselor” is largely making a point seen in two recent
foreign films, Claire Denis’ upcoming “Bastards” and Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch Of
Sin
.” Both elegantly weaved narratives that illustrated the harsh reality of
how violence trickles through the cracks in society’s class structures,
carefully deploying a sense of righteous anger at the inequities of their
respective societies. Here, it feels more simplistic and far less righteous,
drawing a line between the order of this financial high life and the corruption
and arbitrary violence of lower-class Mexico day laborers, a comparison that
only comes across as condescending when we’re asked to feel for The Counselor’s
white collar plight. The matter in which the “haves” in the film use the
“have-nots” for manual labor, and how it’s bound to bite them in the ass, is
emphasized by the repeated closeups of Malkina’s pet cheetahs, who hunt freely
for her pleasure before being chained up and placed back in custody. That
Reiner is oblivious to Malkina’s own plot to usurp his power is clear enough:
the fact that she has elaborate cheetah tattoos dotting her back is the sort of
touch that suggests Scott not only thinks audiences won’t understand what “The
Counselor” is about, but that he feels the need to remind himself as well. [C-]

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