Film review: The Counselor

posted at 9:31 am on October 27, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

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.


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Looks too heavy.

Can’t stand movie stars anymore.

Brad Pitt is a terrible actor, especially with that actor.

bluegill on October 27, 2013 at 9:33 AM

With that accent, I mean.

bluegill on October 27, 2013 at 9:35 AM

Bad Grandpa was sold out, huh?

22044 on October 27, 2013 at 9:37 AM

strange and pointless script from No Country for Old Men writer Cormac McCarthy.

You just described Cormac McCarthy’s entire body of work, Ed.

Yes, even Blood Meridian, sad as I am to admit it.

mintycrys on October 27, 2013 at 9:37 AM

It looks like the kind of movie people I can’t stand would say is a good movie.

radjah shelduck on October 27, 2013 at 9:39 AM

Between Cameron Diaz’s scary plastic face, and Brad Pitt’s complete lack of acting ability … this bomb will probably be a huge hit.

Pork-Chop on October 27, 2013 at 9:42 AM

Where is the “Movie Rating” system that awards points for number of stars, and frequency of occurrence, that pimped Obamacare or Libtard political candidates to us?

But hey, we have to continue to shovel money toward people that hate us in order to try to wrest the culture from them or something, right? Right?

M240H on October 27, 2013 at 9:47 AM

Bad Grandpa got a better review on Fox and Friends this morning.

That Johnny Knoxville got more stars than a couple of aging leftists pretty much sums it all up. Just sayin’

I guess Brad and Cameron will have to go back to their other career- lecturing us about the events of the day even though they are as empty and inane as the characters they portray on the big screen. And when’s the last time Rosie Perez was really in a movie- White Men Can’t Jump, maybe? That must have been about 10 years ago.

Happy Nomad on October 27, 2013 at 9:55 AM

It looks like the kind of movie people I can’t stand would say is a good movie.

radjah shelduck on October 27, 2013 at 9:39 AM

Yeah, like Gravity. I’m not interested unless there is a guarantee that George Clooney gets hurled into space without any chance of recovery. Without that, I’m not going.

Happy Nomad on October 27, 2013 at 9:57 AM

Interesting about all the drug deals that “go bad” in Hollywood movies. Drug deals must mostly go well in real life. I mean, it’s a booming business.

Thanks for the warning. Not necessary, though — I want nothing to do with any more Cormac McCarthy stories.

rrpjr on October 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

When looking for a movie to watch I use Pitt’s name to filter out the crap.

CWchangedhisNicagain on October 27, 2013 at 10:04 AM

At least the song in the trailer is a winner.

SteveThomas on October 27, 2013 at 10:06 AM

When looking for a movie to watch I use Pitt’s name to filter out the crap.

CWchangedhisNicagain on October 27, 2013 at 10:04 AM

HA!

workingclass artist on October 27, 2013 at 10:14 AM

I love Ed’s movie reviews even though we have somewhat differing tastes in movies. I can usually tell whether I’ll like a movie based on his reviews. Can’t say that about most critics, not that Ed is really a critic. That said I wouldn’t bother to change channels to see this thing. Of course I never ever go to theaters anymore either. I hate theaters so much that I built a home theater last year so I wouldn’t even be tempted.

Oldnuke on October 27, 2013 at 10:17 AM

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?

Wasn’t all this stuff already exemplified by Breaking Bad?

Thomas More on October 27, 2013 at 10:19 AM

Don’t be so hard on Pitt. He has had some great roles and films, like Snatch, Fight Club, and Ms. Mr. Smith…

mkbruin on October 27, 2013 at 10:21 AM

The bigger the names of the actors…….The bigger the Glorification is.
.
But we’ll wait for the next Hollywood celeb-anti gun PSA….or rant….
.
I’m sure Jennifer Aniston will speak out against this kind of violence/

FlaMurph on October 27, 2013 at 10:23 AM

I love Ed’s movie reviews even though we have somewhat differing tastes in movies.

Oldnuke on October 27, 2013 at 10:17 AM

You and my wife would get along fabulously.

And thanks, by the way, for the kind words!

Ed Morrissey on October 27, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Brad Pitt is a terrible actor, especially with that accent.

bluegill on October 27, 2013 at 9:33 AM

Got to agree with you on that. He is so over the top in his roles (that I’ve seen) that I can’t take him serious.

Flange on October 27, 2013 at 10:29 AM

I knew this was going to be craptastic the second I saw Javier’s get up and hair. I mean, really.

Darksean on October 27, 2013 at 10:35 AM

I never understood all the swooning about Brad Pitt’s looks. I’ve always thought he looked like an unwashed, unmade bed. Just dirty and needed a good shampoo, shave and haircut. He and his partner Angelina make a good match, both look like skanks.

BeachBum on October 27, 2013 at 10:39 AM

Happy Nomad, go see Gravity then…..

JFKY on October 27, 2013 at 10:41 AM

Thought it was a fantastic movie, as did my pals. (‘Best movie I’ve seen in years,’ said one friend.) Then again, I was taught to appreciate Cormac McCarthy by one of my college professors, a funny old guy who was one of the first people to read and write about McCarthy, so I came to this movie more out of passion for Cormac McCarthy than anyone who actually appeared on the screen.

Strange and pointless indeed, which could describe most any piece of art. Water’s necessary, food’s necessary. Art isn’t. Doesn’t mean it’s bad or not worthwhile; in this case, the example is quite good. I don’t know much about the actors who were in the Counselor but they did a serviceable job and didn’t mess up too much the dialogue, which is really where the story lives.

Ed seems to miss – or only pick up subconsciously – the main thrust of the movie, common in a lot of McCarthy’s work, that this world is mostly evil and there’s little we can do to change that. Unpleasant and challenging, yes, but artfully done and strange as well. Some other reviews I’ve seen of this movie have more specifically pointed out this nihilistic tendency, and their dislike tends to come from a repulsion of that worldview. Would be good to address it straight on.

In a time when people try harder and harder to pass off fluff or politically correct rubbish in a world without consequence as “art” or something “profound,” it is nice to see a movie where things aren’t magically solved by virtue of being on the silver screen.

The Internet on October 27, 2013 at 10:50 AM

I liked Brad Pitt in “True Romance”. “No Country for Old Men” was a terrible movie with terrific acting. Killing people with a pneumatic punch and silenced shotgun is redundantly stupid. Nonchalantly blowing away Woody Harrelson was comic genius.

Rode Werk on October 27, 2013 at 10:50 AM

I knew this was going to be craptastic the second I saw Javier’s get up and hair. I mean, really.

Darksean on October 27, 2013 at 10:35 AM

My daughters think Penelope won’t let Javier do a movie unless his hair, makeup and clothes are stupid looking. Smart woman.

That said, I can’t remember the last movie I went to… They all look repulsive lately.

Fallon on October 27, 2013 at 10:51 AM

OT/ one of the best movies I’ve seen lately… is The Call…with Halle Berry as a 9-1-1 operator…edge of the seat type of movie!

KOOLAID2 on October 27, 2013 at 10:52 AM

I will probably go see “Ender’s Game”.

Rode Werk on October 27, 2013 at 10:54 AM

Last night I watched The Mummy for about the thousandth time, the original B&W with Karloff in the leading role. Great movie.

Oldnuke on October 27, 2013 at 10:57 AM

I might go see Free Birds next week.

22044 on October 27, 2013 at 11:01 AM

KOOLAID2 on October 27, 2013 at 10:52 AM

Ooooo, yeah, we liked that one !!
Surprising ending. :-)

pambi on October 27, 2013 at 11:15 AM

Remake of Breaking Bad already?

RoyalFlush on October 27, 2013 at 11:46 AM

The Internet on October 27, 2013 at 10:50 AM

You have a “passion” for the “strange and pointless” art of Cormac McCarthy. Is your passion necessary to you? Sounds like it. Which is good, and to be celebrated.

“Water’s necessary, food’s necessary. Art isn’t. Doesn’t mean it’s bad or not worthwhile; in this case, the example is quite good.“

What is the difference between “good” and “necessary”? Art isn’t necessary, yet that isn’t to say its “not worthwhile”? Isn’t a good often necessary? Aristotle would be interested in the distinctions.

“I don’t know much about the actors who were in the Counselor but they did a serviceable job and didn’t mess up too much the dialogue, which is really where the story lives.”

A story lives in the dialogue? Only a story without a larger handle on universal truth served by a structure of conflict and character really “lives.” Dialogue disconnected from these fundamentals and which doesn’t build on them exists as an affectation. It doesn’t live — except perhaps in a separate, in vitrio form.

“Ed seems to miss – or only pick up subconsciously – the main thrust of the movie, common in a lot of McCarthy’s work, that this world is mostly evil and there’s little we can do to change that. “

I don’t think Ed missed this. My guess is he finds it not worth explicitly mentioning. It’s a post-modern shibboleth; it just comes with the package these days.

“Unpleasant and challenging, yes, but artfully done and strange as well. Some other reviews I’ve seen of this movie have more specifically pointed out this nihilistic tendency, and their dislike tends to come from a repulsion of that worldview. Would be good to address it straight on.”

Really? Why? Isn’t kind of a cul de sac to begin with?

“In a time when people try harder and harder to pass off fluff or politically correct rubbish in a world without consequence as “art” or something “profound,” it is nice to see a movie where things aren’t magically solved by virtue of being on the silver screen.”

Has it occurred to you that “strange and pointless” and “nihilistic” are in fact the true “politically correct rubbish” of our time, and that McCarthy and his literary confreres are the least courageous artists?

rrpjr on October 27, 2013 at 11:49 AM

Irony of ironies is that these mostly leftist “artists” make their livings from the very things they all profess to deplore and editorialize against, i.e., violence, guns, whatever makes money for Hollywood.

RoyalFlush on October 27, 2013 at 11:58 AM

Interesting about all the drug deals that “go bad” in Hollywood movies. Drug deals must mostly go well in real life. I mean, it’s a booming business.

Thanks for the warning. Not necessary, though — I want nothing to do with any more Cormac McCarthy stories.

rrpjr on October 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Where’s the movie in a normal drug deal? It’d be like a movie about the produce aisle at the grocery store.
About as blah as the drug delivery in my neighborhood – during the summer, the ice cream truck every Thursday afternoon stops at the dealer’s house to pick up money and deliver product. In the winter, it’s a motorcycle in good weather or a Cadillac Escalade in bad. Every Thursday.
Very blah.

Solaratov on October 27, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Solaratov on October 27, 2013 at 12:06 PM

I understand, and you’re right of course. I was trying to point out the cliche of it all. One more movie about a drug deal “gone bad.”

rrpjr on October 27, 2013 at 12:16 PM

When looking for a movie to watch I use Pitt’s name to filter out the crap. CWchangedhisNicagain on October 27, 2013 at 10:04 AM

Oh come on. The first five minutes of Troy were great.

Akzed on October 27, 2013 at 12:17 PM

Oh come on. The first five minutes of Troy were great.

Akzed on October 27, 2013 at 12:17 PM

That’s all I watch too. I keep hoping that one day that big dude will skewer Pitt like a shish-ke-bab and the movie will just end there.

Oldnuke on October 27, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Bruno Ganz did a great job in Downfall, but unfortunately I’ll never again see him without seeing him as Der Fuhrer.

oldleprechaun on October 27, 2013 at 1:00 PM

I love Ed’s movie reviews even though we have somewhat differing tastes in movies. I can usually tell whether I’ll like a movie based on his reviews. Can’t say that about most critics, not that Ed is really a critic. That said I wouldn’t bother to change channels to see this thing. Of course I never ever go to theaters anymore either. I hate theaters so much that I built a home theater last year so I wouldn’t even be tempted.

Oldnuke on October 27, 2013 at 10:17 AM

Same here, particularly about Ed’s critiques, but I actually think he could quit his day job and become a film critic, but he better not. We need him here, and in the fight.

TXUS on October 27, 2013 at 1:05 PM

On the Hot Air scale, The Counselor gets a two at best, and I’m certainly not going to watch it again:

Well, that sums things up well enough. My measure of a film I find AT LEAST acceptable is that I want to — and do — watch it at least twice, usually three, then later four times in total. But initially, I’ll watch an acceptable film twice just to ensure I understood the plot (my first viewing of all films is usually sidetracked a great deal by the visuals and the camera work, can’t help it — so I always “review” immediately when I like a film even somewhat so as to comprehend the story/dialogue/characters).

This film has such acting-power involved that it’s a shame not to see it, so I will. But it DOES hint of a tad too much hubris, to borrow your word there, something a bit too-too-I’m-fabulous about the performances. Though perhaps that’s the point of their characters portrayed…

I’ll go see it but thanks for your review.

Lourdes on October 27, 2013 at 2:20 PM

Thanks, Ed, for taking the hits so we don’t have to. It’s not doing too well $$ wise and getting cranky reviews elsewhere.

Will watch it when it, uh, hits the ground just to stare as Fassbender.

kim roy on October 27, 2013 at 3:46 PM

Just watched one of my all time favorite films. The Happening. Now just wait before you start in about what an awful idiotic film it is and read the rest of my post. Here’s why it’s one of my faves. First off it’s about nature striking back at us awful human beings for being such terrible co-tenants of Gaia. That usually means it’s a crappy worthless film. Second it’s a M. Night Shamwow film which automatically qualifies it for widespread ignorage. HOWEVER, what I do is just use my imagination and think of every one of those dipsticks that commit suicide in unusual ways as being brain dead liberal idiot Obama voters….which they pretty much are. By the end of that film there are only three or four liberals left in the world. Now that’s a good start. The last reason I like it is that DeSchanel chick, I think she’s cute, although air headed, and I like to watch her moving around.

Oldnuke on October 27, 2013 at 3:53 PM

What are the chances I’ll to to see a movie where Robert Redford is lost at sea. All Is Lost and I don’t care.

tmitsss on October 27, 2013 at 4:04 PM

I go to the movie every week with a friend. We trade off who gets to pick the film. This week he picked “The Counselor”. He apologized to me after the movie was over. I accepted although it was touch and go.

This is the single worst movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Pointless. Boring. Annoying. At once embarrassing and unwatchable. The men relentlessly talked about women in the most degrading way. McCarthy apparently can’t think of any other way to show that two people love each other than to show them in bed together. The opening scene was one lacey slip shy of full-frontal nudity and an X rating. And after sitting through this unpleasantness for two hours that read like four, the last 15 minutes had the characters doing and saying things that in the first hour and fifteen minutes they would never have done or said.

I get to choose the movies for the next couple of weeks. It’s Ender’s Game next week, for sure.

IdrilofGondolin on October 27, 2013 at 4:47 PM