When discussing The Counselor with various friends over the weekend, I definitely got the feeling that this is one of those times where you're either going to "get it" or not. I fell somewhere in the middle, which kind of shits on my own point. There were many aspects I liked and appreciated, and then at other times I was scratching my head. It's interesting to note that I saw a couple walk out after about 20 minutes, which to be fair, doesn't seem like you're giving it much of a chance. If you asked that couple what The Counselor was about, they wouldn't have been able to tell you much of anything.
Therein lies the issue I think many are going to have with The Counselor. What's it about? What was it trying to say? I've often complained about films that spoon feed the plot or hold your hand through every little detail. I like a little ambiguity and having to figure things out on my own. The Counselor might have a little too much ambiguity for its own good.
Michael Fassbender plays the titular "Counselor". In fact, taking a page from Layer Cake (a favorite film of mine), I don't think he's ever referenced by an actual name. After one of many lengthy conversations with his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), the Counselor decides to get involved in a large cocaine deal. The deal goes wrong, the Mexican cartels blame him, and now he and just about everyone he knows is in danger.
Throwing a wrench into all of this is Reiner's girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who appears to be behind the deal going wrong. I was never quite sure of her motivation unless she secretly hated everyone she knew and wished them harm. She also had a cheetah fetish, which I didn't know if was some metaphor I didn't get, or just a random character trait given to her. Depending on your perspective, there's sexy/bizarre scene where she has sex with a car. Even the Reiner acknowledges the randomness of it when he recounts the story to the Counselor.
Lack of motivation is something I struggled with through much of The Counselor. Why was a particular scene in the film? Why are these people doing these things? There are scenes that are almost entirely in Spanish, but not subtitled. Was knowing Spanish a requirement? If it wasn't a requirement that you understood what was being said, then what was the point? When the Counselor and Westray (Brad Pitt) meet, they order a Heineken. Don't they have better taste in beer? Okay, that last point's probably a nitpick. As I mentioned before, I don't mind having to figure things out on my own, but it started to become a chore after a while, and I found myself not caring about what was going on as a result. Even when things were explained, I didn't find it to be very satisfying. It was also devoid of any kind of drama or tension.
Another element I had an issue with was the dialog. While there are a few great conversations, there were others that had me going, "Huh? What in the hell are you talking about?" There's some very philosophical and symbolic dialog that was a little laborious to listen to. Who talks like this? If this had been directed at me, I would have asked why they can't just speak directly and get to the point. Apparently this was Cormac McCarthy's (No Country for Old Men, The Road) first screenplay, and I think he might have tried a little too hard to be smart and heady.
If you're worried that I'm spoiling details, I don't think you'll find that to be an issue. The Counselor does a lot of foreshadowing, and certain moments were very predictable. The irony is that some of the most predictable scenes were the ones I enjoyed the most. There are some very inventive deaths that rival many horror films.
Perhaps I had my hopes set too high when I saw that Ridley Scott was directing. This was one of my more highly anticipated films of the year and I can't help but feel disappointed. It's not all bad though. The film has a very slick look and is very well acted. Bardem is always interesting in everything he's in, and there were moments where I thought Fassbender was doing his finest work. Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz aren't in it very much, but Pitt seemed to be having the most fun of the bunch. If there was any weak performance, I thought it was with Cameron Diaz. Her attempt at a cold, sexy demeanor came off as kind of flat and lifeless. It's just not enough that I really like the cast, I have to care about characters and story.
The Counselor is the very definition of a mixed bag. For every thing I liked about it, there was another thing I disliked. This is one of those films that's going to divide audiences and likely spark some debate, which isn't a bad thing. Having said that, if you're interested in seeing The Counselor, I'd recommend you rent it in the event you're in the dislike group.
2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars