Film Review: 'The Counselor' is an exercise in pessimism

Michael Fassbender plays the title character in Ridley Scott's new “The Counselor.” That's the only way the other characters address him, as though he has no identity outside of his professional role; we never learn his actual name. This identification may be intended ironically, since he almost never gives counsel; in fact, he is the one who receives counsel — from nearly everybody else.

The only time we see him in his professional capacity is during a court-appointed pro bono gig for a woman (Rosie Perez) awaiting trial in a prison.

This may be intended as another irony, since his lifestyle and clothes signal that he's a very big-bucks type lawyer — someone who can fly to Amsterdam for no purpose other than choosing the right diamond for the engagement ring he hopes to present to his girlfriend (Penelope Cruz).

We quickly learn that he has invested in a huge drug deal that involves one — or several — of the big cartels. His club-owner buddy Reiner (Javier Bardem, with an Einstein hairdo) tries to dissuade him. Westray (Brad Pitt), his contact in the drug-dealing world, tries to dissuade him. Pretty much everybody who suspects that he's pulling this bonehead play (or something like it) tries to dissuade him — even his pro bono client. Pitt seems to be channeling Mickey Rourke in his breakout part in “Body Heat” — so much so he notices it himself: “What was it Mickey Rourke told that guy in the movie?” he asks.

The only major character who doesn't caution him is beautiful, coldhearted Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner's enigmatic girlfriend.

Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy never specify exactly why he's doing it. The counselor drops hints here and there, the likeliest being along the lines of “Because it was there,” i.e., he's trying to break the disturbing perfection of his existence. Of course, he gets his wish big-time when inevitably something goes wrong with the deal.

I'd love to tell you exactly what goes wrong with the deal, but I can't. Not because it would constitute a spoiler. It wouldn't: The skeins of deception and betrayal that compose the plot are so arbitrary and convoluted that I have no clear idea of who was on which side, or even how many sides there were. Control of the shipment changes hands more than once, and it's anybody's guess which, if any, of the factions is aligned with the counselor.

One of the producers of the movie describes it as “‘No Country for Old Men' on steroids,” referring to the film based on a McCarthy novel. But it's more like “‘No Country for Old Men' on steroids” except without the steroids. The plot details are different, but the backbone is not: A normal guy breaches his innocence by getting involved with bad goings-on and very bad people. Anything that can go wrong does, and his karma is paid off a hundredfold.

I haven't read McCarthy, but previous adaptations of his books suggest that the signal characteristic of his work is an apparently endless pessimism. I couldn't be sure it was his pessimism, since both “No Country” and “The Road” were adapted by other hands. “The Counselor,” however, seals the deal, since McCarthy wrote it as an original screenplay.

“No Country” ran this course better, perhaps because, while the Coen brothers have a cold streak, Scott has nothing but coldness. He's a great technician, the film is well-made, and except for the slow 15 minutes at the start, it's relentlessly suspenseful, largely because of the sympathy created by Fassbender, Cruz, and particularly, Bardem. The latter is the only character imbued with any humor. Everyone else is dead serious. The cast also includes fleeting appearances by Ruben Blades, Edgar Ramirez, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo and Bruno Ganz.

As in “No Country,” it's primarily a complete downer. If you've seen the earlier film, the question is: Why bother with this one?


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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