A script written by one of the, if not the, best contemporary authors, Cormac McCarthy. Directed by Ridley Scott. A leading cast both A-list and prodigious: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. It seems like a sure winner, but alas the critics have been harsh. Perhaps rightly so, as The Counsellor is not the sum of it’s parts. But is it bad, or just odd?
McCarthy’s familiar devices appear. The Counsellor, played by Fassbender, is our nameless protagonist who makes one bad decision from which seemingly unavoidable consequences entangle him and his loved one. The tragic fate characters run into isn’t played out on screen, thankfully for the sanctity of the viewer, but the absence of an identifiable face or avatar or symbol for the antagonists, visual or audible or whatever, voids of the film of a lot of potential tension. I think it may be a sign of a larger issue surrounding Scott’s more recent work.
For a graduate of the RCA, the creator of Blade Runner, etcetera, Ridley’s more recent work has little of his creative vision. A few inventive compositions flare up during The Counsellor, and exciting use of lighting is quite consistent, but on the whole not often enough, and his camera movement was rather dull. His cinematic language seems to have grown more conservative, which is not something you’d expect of the prolific mastermind behind Alien. I wonder if this is the issue? With so many projects constantly going on for him, and an apparent pride in finishing his shooting schedules early and promptly, I wonder how much love is put into the projects. The man that battled to get the final cut on Blade Runner, to have huge sets built and scripts re-written, against all advice, so that it was his vision on screen, I hope it isn’t a case of churning out product now.
But, Scott is still one of the best working in Hollywood! And I’m not sure there are many directors that could attract such a stellar cast to such a dark, twisted and unconventional script. Of course, Cormac McCarthy’s name is on that title page, but one has to trust the director with such words. Such words that bounce and linger, playfully and poignantly. Such words are magic when given to Javier Bardem and Fassbender, who get the chance to exercise the lyrical nature of the dialogue. However, as much as I hoped this would be an expose of Cameron Diaz’s acting chops, her blundering tone and delivery of the words on the page feel more like a superhero baddie than sinister “McCarthian” conniving evil. So when she scowls and pouts to declare that she is not cold in her attitude towards loss, since “truth has no temperature,” the audience can be easily forgiven for chuckling. And given the importance of her character, it does the film some damage.
The film has a ‘theatre of the absurd’ atmosphere that is embodied well into the lavish production design and tremendous and grandiose costume design. It adds a sheen to an otherwise bleak and scary story that does exactly what you’re not expecting – and that is truly a breathe of fresh air.
I can’t imagine this is what McCarthy envisioned as he wrote it, but he was on set, he must be aware (and willing) for it to turn out this way. And I’m glad it has! Should critics really be digging at the film for its resistance to conform to regular moody thriller cinema, to deliver typical plot describing dialogue? What we get are some powerful themes from some horrible characters, and that is quintessentially Cormac McCarthy successfully adapted!

So while Ridley has made a good film, one can’t help but wonder what the Coen Brothers would have done with it. Not because they have successfully adapted a McCarthy novel, but because the explosions of sex and violence, greed and excess, are aesthetics and themes they handle so well and that Scott seems to handle without much “pizazz”. But then again, this one film, as it stands, has the most bonkers sex scene in recent cinema, and the most brutal and outrageous murder projected on cinema screens in some time.