There are few films this year which look better on paper than The Counselor: visionary director, a screenplay written by, not adapted from, a novelist often cited as one of the greatest living writers in the world, and a cast loaded with noteworthy stars, one of whom has won an Oscar as one of the writer’s characters. But unlike novels, movies don’t exist on paper.
Some of The Counselor’s trouble may stem from director Ridley Scott’s respected writer Cormac McCarthy. Whereas the director may trim material from a less revered screenwriter, here scenes are allowed to meander along, at times leading nowhere. The author is clearly more familiar with having an unlimited page count to mask predictable structures and delve into characters, details and metaphors rather than the relatively low limit of mainstream cinema.
Once the film’s Chekhov’s gun is introduced, the progression is splayed out with nothing left but the waiting. Meanwhile the dialog, particularly in the first half, varies between material lifted from the interactions of imaginative 15-year-old boys or a Seth Rogan/Evan Greenberg script and pseudo-philosophical exposition which will easily fit on Tumblr and Facebook feeds.
The real trouble is that all the speechifying foreshadows events which are already painfully obvious. This may be intentional, that the characters’ futures were determined far in the past, like the film’s fabled bolito, but it also precludes any illusion of choice. Additionally, character development is replaced by eccentricities and irrepressible loves of sex and money, flattening each character, and the story itself, which confuses ambiguity for depth, shatters under examination.
Scott makes effective use of the open spaces of the Mexican border and, despite being telegraphed, several tense scenes emerge through construction and an outstanding soundtrack. Thankfully, Scott refrains from over-saturating and over-editing, yet occasional excesses still come through. For a film which should feel like steady crush of an electric guillotine, there remains a lot of slack, particularly in dropped subplots and many diatribes on women, none of which work. Even its examination of capitalism and the drug trade results in nothing substantial.
The Counselor has its moments of detached poetics, its pulse-raising sequences and humorous or insightful moments. It looks good and the cast is fine, except for some scenes which are supposed to be dramatic or menacing but come off as comedic. Yet while each of these little pieces may work, they don’t come together in a satisfying way, which makes this venerable collaboration all the more disappointing. Instead of a film or even a novel, The Counselor is a collection of quotes. [subscribe2]