Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
In the world of film there are three films that Cormac McCarthy has been involved with that one might consider “mainstream” two of them, The Road, and No Country for Old Men were adapted from his own novels, and The Counselor was an original screenplay. Two of those films are considered successful, and one of them is not. Care to guess which one? The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott is considered by many critics to be a failure of a film. Many people view it’s plot as a slow moving, dialogue heavy, mess of a film with its cast serving as the only saving grace. After viewing the film, I don’t disagree that the film is a slow burn. A very slow burn. But there’s nothing bad about the film. In fact, I found the film to be a perfect example of McCarthy’s work and style brought to film, with a unique approach that makes this film a rewarding film to watch.
Michael Fassbender plays the titular Counselor, as he is known throughout the film. He’s a high-priced lawyer, in love with a beautiful woman, Laura (Penélope Cruz), who because of his lavish lifestyle decides to involve himself in drug trafficking. To help him with this decision The Counselor has his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), and Westray (Brad Pitt). Both men spend ample time explaining the dangers of the drug trafficking business to the Counselor, who in spite of it all decides to move forward with the plan. Meanwhile, as The Counselor, and his business partners, go about their lavish lifestyle an outside cartel moves to steal the shipment of drugs The Counselor paid so much money for. All of these pieces come together in a way that isn’t entirely surprising, but plays out in a way that keeps the story interesting up until the very last scene.
The Counselor as a film is slow moving, dialogue heavy story. All of the minutia of the plan comes together off screen, with only a few key moments actually happening on screen. All of it is enough to give the audience the information they need, but also keep them focused on the conversations between characters in order to fully piece together what is happening and why it is happening. Reiner explains a lot of the financial aspects of the plan to The Counselor, while Westray explains the behaviors of the cartel other drug traffickers. All of this is done in an attempt to create a world around The Counselor that he is unfamiliar with. This method of exposition would work for a novel, but isn’t necessarily the most interesting method for a film. That being said, it’s not bad. There are only a few instances of dialogue that feels or sounds clunky and abnormal, and a majority of it comes from Cameron Diaz’s delivery of the lines she’s given. All of the other actors fall into into their lines to deliver performances that distinguish themselves as individual players in the larger overarching story. The only other downside to this method of story telling on film is that it fails to make the characters relatable. The only character you care about is Laura, and she is only a bystander in everything.
Having a story as dialogue heavy as The Counselor means there’s not a lot to show on screen to make the film visually interesting. The characters move from one location to another in order to have conversations, but there’s very little rhyme or reason to why the characters choose the locations they choose. It is only toward the end of the film when the locations the characters move to start to make logical sense for the plot. The plot itself doesn’t really begin to move until about halfway through the film, everything before this is just setup for everything that is going to happen. There are a few instances of actions transpiring when the characters aren’t busy discussing the intricacies or philosophy of drug trafficking. Many of these scenes are meant to show the gears of fate turning against The Counselor and his plan, and others are designed as payoff from dialogue earlier in the film. Including more scenes like this, with the protagonists involvement, may have prevented the film from feeling as slow as it does.
There is nothing wrong with a slow film, except when the film feels slow. The pay off is this film is satisfying because you see all of the pieces of the plot and dialogue come together, but it’s not an entirely surprising one. I wouldn’t call this film bad, but it’s a great example of why film works as a medium and why some elements work better in novel form. The Counselor deserves a second examination from critics, as the film itself is really a coherent, well acted film. Ridley Scott does the best that he can with a script that puts almost too much emphasis on the dialogue. When you compare The Counselor to another McCarthy film that is considered successful by critics like No Country for Old Men, the film becomes an example of how two different directors can approach material from the same writer.