The Counselor

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

If one believes the assessment of Scott Foundas in his apologetic “Variety” essay, Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” is a slept-on and misunderstood near-masterpiece on par with “Blade Runner” and not the ridiculous, cringe-worthy embarrassment described by many other critics. For those keeping track, Metacritic’s page for “The Counselor” averages fifteen positive reviews, thirteen mixed reviews, and twelve negative reviews to come up with a score of 49 on a hundred point scale. Foundas discloses his role as the organizer of the “first complete North American retrospective of Scott’s films,” and the critic’s feelings extend to the eyebrow-raising claim that “The Counselor” is “bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays.”

Familiar generalizations about the public’s lack of taste and intelligence aside, the first part of that claim is dubious. Directed by Scott from novelist Cormac McCarthy’s first script produced originally for the screen, “The Counselor” is a cryptic neo-noir crammed with the most familiar tropes and expectations of the style. Contrary to Foundas’ opinion, the movie ventures nothing and gains even less, unfolding with a solemn pomposity that will delight only those viewers who believe they are in on the joke as opposed to being the butt of it.

Take, for example, the spectacle of Cameron Diaz’s cheetah-stroking femme fatale replicant Malkina grinding and squeaking her mons pubis on the windshield of Reiner’s (Javier Bardem) Ferrari. Apart from the scene’s flirtations with outright misogyny, amplified by Reiner coarsely likening Malkina’s vagina to a “catfish thing” and a “bottom feeder,” McCarthy appears to reveal a disappointingly regressive embrace of masculine fears regarding “repulsive” female sexuality. Whether or not one finds the scene liberating or debasing (see Tracy Moore’s “Jezebel” column for a more detailed discussion), the moment typifies the film’s anything goes desperation to rise above the forgettable banality of its plot.

While “The Counselor” is not exactly a bore, Scott’s phony gravitas and McCarthy’s drug trade philosophy-lite conspire against the efforts of the game stars. Along with Bardem and Diaz, the principal cast includes Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, and, in the title role, Michael Fassbender. A few arresting visuals, including the high-speed clothesline decapitation of a motorcyclist, must compete with secretive conversations too dutiful in their elisions. Further, the pace of the film oozes like the fecal sludge that hides the narrative’s MacGuffin-esque drug shipment in a disguised septic truck bound for Chicago.

Along the way, Scott indulges plenty of McCarthy’s signature bloodletting, including the sight of the nightmarish “bolito,” a kind of motorized piano wire garrote/noose that cuts through the neck of any victim unlucky enough to have it slipped over his head. Death comes for the guilty and the innocent alike, but aside from brief glimpses of Cruz’s naïve and underdeveloped Laura, Scott and McCarthy have no interest in exploring a point of view alternative to the twisted lawbreakers whose moral failures lead to unspeakable outcomes. Only time will tell if Foundas made the right call on “The Counselor,” but unless the movie gets embraced as camp, it is unlikely to ever attain the status of Scott’s better films.

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