The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Counsellor

Reviewed by Dario Llinares.

Director Ridley Scott
Length 117 mins
Certificate 18 / R
Rating **--------
Filmmaking: 1  Personal enjoyment: 1

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Poor Michael Fassbender. He really is an acting machine at the top of his game. In Ridley Scott’s new behemoth, The Counsellor, however, he finds himself in a multi-vehicle car crash of a film; no matter how much his performance attempts anchor the story and the character relationships, he is overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the disaster. From beginning to end I really didn’t have much of a clue what was going on here. But to attempt to sum up: Fassbender is the counsellor of the title who, due to financial problems, is nominally involved in some shady drug deal with Javier Bardem’s comically over-exaggerated gangster, Reiner. Complicating matters is Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), an ultra-femme fatale whose machinations manipulate the destiny of all the male characters. When the deal goes wrong, Fassbender is left desperately trying to extricate himself and his new wife (Penélope Cruz) from the lethal situation.

With the level of directing, writing and acting talent involved in this project, it beggars belief that what emerges is such a turkey. Perhaps there was a conflict of authorship? Screenwriter Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott are obviously respected names, yet the film’s narrative structure, dialogue and direction are the central problems. During the first half of the film you wait for some kind of set-up upon which the character’s uncertainties, betrayals, and loyalties can be based. This doesn’t materialise, and it feels as though a whole section of the film - the bit where they establish what is going on - was left on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, the randomness of the edit makes it very difficult to become involved and this serves to accentuate myriad other problems that the film has.

The opening sequence is a sex scene between Fassbender and Cruz, which, one supposes, is there to instill an immediate depth and intimacy to their relationship. But the dialogue sounds like a particular ripe excerpt from 50 Shades of Grey. Without a fundamental investment in the authenticity of their relationship, bad sex talk is just that. The cringe factor of this scene pales into insignificance when compared to the sequence in which Cameron Diaz’s character pleasures herself on the windscreen of a Ferrari. Yes, you read that right. Scott seems to have gone out of his way to shock and provoke but the result is just risible. What comes across is that a former cinematic visionary is battling against a myopia that defines a series of rather mediocre films (along with the crushing disappointment of Prometheus [2012]). There is no pleasure in saying this about a director who, in the past, has created aesthetic masterpieces.

Violence is deployed in the same way as sex: graphic yet totally superficial. In terms of theme and tone, a cross between Breaking Bad and the excellent Andrew Dominik thriller Killing Them Softly (2012) look like aspiration. Unfortunately, the tautness, nihilism and consistency of both those texts is thoroughly lacking here. Bardem’s haircut performance and Diaz’s X-rated Cruella de Vil impression strike a completely incongruous tone to Fassbender’s attempts at emotional authenticity. Brad Pitt pops up to do a by-the-numbers, Ocean’s Eleven star cameo. Indeed, the most irritating aspects of the film are extraneous characters - Mexican drug lords, silent assassins and low level hoodlums - who enter the fray, for no other reason than to offer some pseudo-philosophical gobbledygook. I don’t think I’ve seen a film where people have talked so much and made such little sense.

If there is a good film in here somewhere it has taken a huge amount to talent to hide it.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on November 18, 2013.