A lawyer whose outgo outstrips his income makes the decision to get involved in a drug deal to score a quick fortune, believing that he can simply go back to his normal life afterward. But is it that simple? Do decisions, once made, strip us of the ability to choose later, or stop an escalating series of reactions? By the time we realize that we have stark choices to make, is it already too late to make them?

The Counselor features a terrific cast and poses some interesting philosophical questions.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer much more than good performances in service to a confusing muddle of a script and telegraphed punches.  Director Ridley Scott can’t rescue the strange and pointless script from No Country for Old Men writer Cormac McCarthy. The film starts off with a series of barely-connectable vignettes, starting off with a bedroom sequence that practically defines the pointlessness of what follows. It’s like coming into a five-act play just as the final act begins.

Scott tries mightily to turn a film with multiple beheadings into breezy art, and it just doesn’t work. Each reveal of a particular nasty bit of business comes true, which the foreshadowing robs of any real horror. Viewers know from the trailer that the drug deal for the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) goes bad, and practically nothing that happens afterward comes as a surprise.  As Ruben Blades says in a cameo appearance, the decisions made in the beginning of the film pretty much dictate everything else that follows afterward, with no sense that the characters can or will do anything to change the direction of the plot. It’s just a question of giving up, which isn’t difficult to do here.

The cast does good but mostly unremarkable work, with Fassbender stretching the farthest.  Javier Bardem plays his partner Reiner with a sort of frenetic resignation, while Brad Pitt’s Westray plays the Counselor’s counselor with perhaps just a bit too much hubris.  Penelope Cruz doesn’t get to do much but look heartbreakingly and tragically sweet.   Rosie Perez has a brief cameo, as do Natalie Dormer, Bruno Ganz, John Leguizamo, and Blades. Cameron Diaz plays the malevolent Malkina with some relish, but even her role in what transpires comes as no big surprise, and to no great effect.  She’s not interesting enough to be a great villain, not even with the fake cheetah tattoos covering the left side of her back and neck.  The entire affair has a tawdry, pointless air to it that even Fassbender’s good performance can’t dispel.

At least it’s a cautionary tale for lawyers to stick to law rather than crime. If you want to watch that kind of cautionary tale, though, stick with Carlito’s Way. It even has John Leguizamo.  On the Hot Air scale, The Counselor gets a two at best, and I’m certainly not going to watch it again:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The Counselor is rated R for plenty of gruesome violence and strong sexual content, including an entirely gratuitous scene with Diaz and a Ferrari windshield. (No, I am not kidding; it should win the Elizabeth Berkley-Showgirls Award for least titillating sex scene of the year.) It’s not for teenagers or children, and not for a lot of adults, either.