On its surface, "The Counselor" looks a lot like a companion film to "No Country for Old Men." Like the Coen brothers' 2007 thriller, it's got novelist Cormac McCarthy's fingerprints on it and it stars Javier Bardem. And like the earlier film, it's a dark tale of greed, violence and bad luck - as an otherwise ordinary man pursues ill- gotten gains with deadly results.
But the similarities are only surface-level. The Coens took Mr. McCarthy's source material and transformed it into a brilliant, tragic meditation on human folly and the nature of evil. But director Ridley Scott, working from a story Mr. McCarthy wrote explicitly for the screen, works no such magic. "The Counselor" is visually stunning but emotionally stunted, a gruesome, gaudy and unforgiving story that revels in grotesque depravity. It's a movie about the emptiness of everything that is all too empty itself.
Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a criminal defense attorney - called Counselor by everyone - whose name we never learn. He's deeply in love with his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz), but he's also in a financial bind. To remedy his money troubles, he turns to two men: Reiner (Mr. Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), a pair of hustlers who assist with a drug-related transaction that's supposed to net them all a big pot of money. Mr. Fassbender's Counselor intends to do the deal, take his money and return to an otherwise bland and legal life. But things take an ugly turn, and he gets caught up in a situation far more dire than he expected.
Mr. McCarthy's novels are known for their sparse, brutal rhythms, and he brings a similar sensibility to the film, his first screenplay. The dialogue is elliptical, and the scenes are strung together with a minimum of explanatory detail. The menace and mystery he generates so well with prose mostly comes across as vague and underdeveloped when rendered on screen.
Mr. Scott's crisp, precisely framed visuals, meanwhile, are frequently striking, but they're a poor match for the perilous world that Mr. McCarthy's stories require.
The generalized vagueness extends to the characters, all of whom are essentially blank: Mr. Fassbender has little to do except look increasingly distraught, and Miss Cruz's Laura is little more than a beautiful prize to be won. Reiner and Westray are oddities who come across more like literary symbols than real people. Both are larger than life, but neither of them seem quite real.
The same goes for Reiner's flame Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who is both the most interesting character in the movie and the most ridiculous. She struts through the movie like a comic book villain, dressed in absurd outfits and makeup that makes her eyes look like a jungle cat's. It's a bizarre and over-the-top performance, which, come to think of it, makes it a rather effective symbol of the rest of the movie.
TITLE: "The Counselor"
CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Cormac McCarthy
RATING: R for violence, intense sexuality, language
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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