Perhaps the expectations are too high for Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay, but The Counselor does not find the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist in top form.
It’s a crime thriller with complex characters and sharp dialogue, along with a top-notch cast and the slick and stylish direction of versatile veteran Ridley Scott (Gladiator).
Yet while there are some clever twists in this bleak contemporary story of a lawyer whose bad decision leads to severe consequences, there’s not a sufficient emotional payoff.
Moviegoers never learn the name of the title character played by Michael Fassbender, but they learn quickly enough that he’s involved in plenty of side deals away from his attorney business. Namely, he becomes involved with a drug trafficking operation with a corrupt partner (Javier Bardem) and his manipulative girlfriend (Cameron Diaz) in the Mexican border town of Juarez
The intentions might be fairly honorable, to allow his fiancee (Penelope Cruz) the chance at a life of luxury. But when an unscrupulous colleague (Brad Pitt) informs him that the operation has gone wrong and his fiancee is caught in the middle, the lawyer becomes desperate as he learns hard lessons about dishonor among thieves.
McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) knows his way around the Mexican border, and he populates his works with characters who are usually compelling, if not very sympathetic. And that’s certainly the case here – it seems everyone is a combination of shady or devious or morally bankrupt, with greed at the root of it all.
However, his script feels more literary than cinematic, with a character-driven approach that requires patience but doesn’t always reward it. The tension escalates gradually, yet the motives of the main characters remain cloudy to the point of frustration.
Scott and McCarthy don’t shy away from the sex and violence as they navigate a story filled with deception, betrayal and murder. The film is technically polished, and it again showcases the versatility of Fassbender (Prometheus), who is quickly moving into Hollywood leading-man status.
As The Counselor reaches it climax, you’re not exactly sure what will happen, but you know it won’t turn out well. Unfortunately, that feeling extends beyond the characters on screen to the audience as well.
Rated R, 117 minutes.