There is fascinating for all the right reasons and then there's THE COUNSELOR kind of fascinating. I guess the cliché is a train wreck, except THE COUNSELOR isn't like a wreck; it's too controlled and measured for that. As batshit crazy as they are, the words are too precisely chosen and so precisely delivered that there's nothing about the film that's speeding out of control exactly. While the film is never, ever boring, it's so laughably earnest in its "look at me" execution that you'll walk out wondering what the hell the point to it all is, and that's never a good thing with either a Ridley Scott-directed film or the first original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE ROAD).
I was in love with the trailers for THE COUNSELOR because they seemed to go out of their way to make it impossible to figure out what the story was, and I'll give them credit for succeeding on that front. In fact, the film's plot is a remarkably straight-forward tale of an attorney who gets involved in a one-time only massive drug deal that goes sideways almost from the get-go. The first scene in the film features the title character—never given a name and played by Michael Fassbender—and his wife (Penelope Cruz) rolling around in bed, so we know right from the beginning where his primary weakness lies.
Fassbender's partner in the drug deal is his old friend and client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a man driven to extravagance, largely due to his need to impress his lovely female companion Malkina (Cameron Diaz). And then there's the cagey Westray (Brad Pitt), who is working with Fassbender as something of a facilitator on the deal. Along the way, we see a few familiar (and very welcome) faces, including the great Bruno Ganz as a diamond dealer, Rosie Perez as a count-appointed client of Fassbender who needs a favor from him, and Rubén Blades, who delivers a great monologue that sets the tone for just how bad things are going to get for our handsome counselor.
The issues I have with the film have to do with the wildly overwritten nature of the screenplay. Some might boil it down to "people don't talk like that," but I've certainly enjoyed enough films written and/or directed by David Mamet to know that doesn't bother me. Part of the program is the actors aren't selling it, and perhaps that's because even they know it's silly material. The one performer who handles the spirit of the words the best is Diaz, playing a slightly too-old-for-a-skirt-that-short, overly made-up trophy companion who has seen and done it all. A story that Bardem tells Fassbender about an encounter between Malkina and his car is almost too much to believe even after seeing it with your own eyes. But Diaz throws herself into this ruthless, skanky role with tremendous gusto and venom, and she might be the only actor in THE COUNSELOR whose performance I bought entirely.
I realize that McCarthy is all about being thought provoking, but that's different than scratching your head at the stream of consciousness and twisted logic that plagues this film. I think somewhere in here are hidden thoughts about life along the U.S./Mexican border, complete with a few uncomfortable stereotypes at play. I wish there was something enjoyable even in the film's sleazier moments, but even those seem to be operating at half speed and didn't want to fully commit to the immorality that this film so desperately needed.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that Fassbender's character just seems to go where the winds pushes him. I'm not used to seeing this actor play such a wimpy, reactive schlub who can't seem to think for himself and is constantly asking people he shouldn't trust what his next move should be. The deep faults in THE COUNSELOR have less to do with it being confusing for the sake of being confusing and more to do with the filmmakers showing the audience just how hard they're trying. It's a bit embarrassing, to be honest, and I expect more from even subpar Ridley Scott films. In the end, the material might have been better served in a different director's hands, but I'm not sure even that would have solved many of the issues. The film is an overall mess in the hands of this handsome cast. And plus, people actually don't talk the way that they do in this movie, and it's annoying as hell.