Nick Nunziata: On paper this is a must see bit of business, with the ageless Ridley Scott helming Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay with a cast including Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, and Michael Fassbender. In execution The Counselor is an odd animal, a sometimes engaging and sometimes meandering showcase for a lot of very talented people playing in the margins. This is a heist film without a heist. A thriller with few thrills. A genre movie that seems to be made up of the moments between the moments typically seen in a genre film. It’s quirk, but with a swagger.
Renn Brown: The Counselor is a cold, strange beast of a movie. There’s definitely that feeling of something being missing in the middle, as the film alternates between investors in a drug deal talking to each other and the actual nitty-gritty of the deal happening far away. The two through-lines never really intersect- the film is all about the consequences one story has on the other. Drug-based crime films –especially when the cartels are involved– tend to make up the meanest genre around, and yet this film still stands apart for the grim picture it paints. Though every bit the bleak morality tale you should expect when you see “Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy,” this is also something uglier. Much uglier. The greedy always walk the plank in McCarthy’s work but unlike, say, No Country For Old Men –famously adapted by the Coens into a brilliant film that persevered McCarthy’s voice while fitting their own– the bleakness here is not couched in a good old fashioned yarn. This movie is all cold inevitability, and it starts with the point of no return already long past. It’s a snuff film of sorts.
Nick Nunziata: The strengths of the film are in its dialogue and in allowing familiar faces to go outside their normal wheelhouse. Brad Pitt shows just how much he’s grown as a character actor in a role that downplays charisma and elevates the reptilian and oily aspects of his character. Cameron Diaz plays ice cold on a new level, alternating between being repulsive and sexy sometimes within the span of a single scene. Javier Bardem continues to prove how perfect a pairing he is with McCarthy’s prose.
Scott is as subdued as possible here, letting his actors shine instead of beating the audience into submission with imagery. There are beautifully composed shots, most of them are in fact, but there’s a maturity and grace to them. There’s a certain charm here akin to the mid 90’s where surprisingly deft and off-kilter genre offerings came out seemingly without much studio intervention. That’s a good and bad thing, but The Counselor feels as distanced from a four corner marketed studio offering as any major film this year.
It’s a shame it doesn’t fully connect.
Renn Brown: This is the very definition of a film made by people who don’t give a fuck for the normal idea of what a genre movie “should” be. There’s almost no resemblance to a normal crime film, structurally. McCarthy is fixated on effect, on reaction, on the pull after the push. There’s something amazing about that sensibility, but a few overwrought exchanges and the very odd unfolding of what plot there is keep it from blowing you over. It’s one of those films that keeps you waiting for the CLICK when at least some of its elements snap into place, and that ostensibly never comes. The party you may call the villain in the piece seems at one moment stymied, and then blazes forward on a different part of some plan, and the two aren’t really reconciled. The way circumstances change and then switch back perhaps represents the force of nature that the Cartel system has become, but the first time the credits roll is whiplash-inducing.
I suspect a second look is going to open this film up, as is often the case with movies (albums, shows) that do something different.
This is definitely an actors piece, and Scott does keep his flare subdued beneath a desaturated palette and straightforward, sophisticated filmmaking. Pitt, Bardem, and Blades simply inhale McCarthy’s dialogue and breathe it out like they are humans engineered solely for that purpose. Fassbender is strong, doing a rare charisma-suppression job that I always respect from guys like him and Clooney, but he’s a cypher. The fall guy. Cruz is a damsel accessory to said fall, and she embraces it fully for what it is. Diaz is the wildcard here, and her performance is the shakiest and most interesting. It’s brave, often convincing despite its archness, and yet there are scenes and moments where the cracks show.
Nick Nunziata: Funnily enough, these people are all poseurs. They’re all living on very borrowed time and the only ones in the film who ever seem genuine and performing to their abilities are the cartel employees. Fassbender is given a rather thankless role, one of very little depth and really no memorable dialogue. He’s sort of a placebo blindly falling into the darkest of traps while everyone around him colors the margins exceptionally. The titular role is the weak link here and as good as the actor in the role is, it would have benefited from someone a little more effectively green and polished. Ewan McGregor comes to mind.
Renn Brown: I’m still wrapped up in this ponderous and often scattered film. There’s a reversal of the usual plot vs. theme ratio, with a relatively few unfolding events driving a lot of character interaction. I like Scott’s treatment of McCarthy’s heightened universe. It’s a stimulating experience that refuses to be pinned down- an all too rare characteristic of studio films. All that said, this is not the film I was hoping for from McCarthy’s debut screenplay, especially when paired with a master aesthetician like Scott. Per usual, Scott seems to place all his trust in the screenplay and his actors, stylishly serving those elements, come what may. McCarthy however, delivers something that bears many of his work’s best traits, but little of its usual genius. It’s fascinating and it’s small. Hell, its best accomplishment could very well be shaking some of the dust off the drug crime genre, if anyone takes notice of what it looks like when a story like this gets really, truly icky.
A bizarre assembly of vivid sequences and muted discussions, The Counselor is the most vicious film of the year. It’s also the strangest. That strangeness will excite some and repulse many, but nobody is going to forget its mean, mean spectacle.
Nick Nunziata: I’ll take an intriguing miss over a bland hit any day of the week. The Counselor is that, a film that will bear fruit on repeat viewings and one that really is sort of a rarity. It’s going to get hammered on its release and the flyover states are going to hate it. It’ll age well, and on your point about it being the most vicious film, I’m with you for the most part. Often a film falls in love with a character and there’s that golden light shining on them. There’s none of that here, which is quintessential McCarthy. If this were released in February it’d be one people banded behind. As a fall prestige release it’s truly a mutt with fleas. Somehow that makes it even more attractive.