It reminds me of The Lone Ranger, actually. It’s too well made, too well-intentioned and too ambitious to call “bad”, and sometimes it succeeds in its goals and is occasionally engaging, but overall, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is a mess, and falls somewhere on the spectrum between “not good” and “ambitious debacle”. Written by arguably one of the best living American authors, Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor wants to be the kind of cautionary morality tale for which McCarthy is renowned (he wrote the novels No Country for Old Men and The Road—among many others—though this is his first feature film script), but mostly it’s just a murky, directionless plot peopled by barely-there characters with myriad mysterious motivations.
This is the kind of movie The Counselor is: If a character describes something particularly gruesome, you can be sure that very thing will then be visited upon someone later in the story. There’s a predictable linear logic to the story, but the characters themselves lack proper motivation. No Country for Old Men was also a cautionary moral tale about greed that was set in the hinterlands of the US/Mexican border and touched on the drug trade, so in many ways, The Counselor feels like No Country’s less interesting, try-hard younger brother. But No Country had a narrative drive The Counselor does not—even roaming monster Anton Chigurh had an understandable reason for doing the things he was doing, even if it was abhorrent. In The Counselor, everyone is just wandering in an amoral desert, looking for a clue.
Michael Fassbender stars as the nameless “Counselor”, a slick lawyer who drives a Bentley, lives in a posh bachelor pad and bones Penelope Cruz. For reasons we never understand, he gets involved in a “one-time” drug deal, which can correctly be interpreted as, “Oh you want to do this once and get out? Good luck with that, buddy.” His partner in this enterprise is Reiner (Javier Bardem), an El Paso drug dealer with whom he is also opening a club. Advising the counselor is Westray (Brad Pitt), who is some kind of facilitator, maybe? It’s never fully clear who or what Westray is, besides the guy who dumps exposition for the audience, explaining how the deal works, et cetera. Also thrown in the mix is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s lover/associate and resident psychopath, and Ruth (Rosie Perez), who is some kind of cartel bigwig, maybe? That’s also not clear.
And this is the central problem with The Counselor. It’s trying so hard to be cool, to have a narrative ambiguity to match the moral ambiguity of the characters, that at times, you have no idea why anyone is doing or saying anything. Everything is so vague and everyone speaks in parables instead of just fucking getting to the point that by the middle of movie, conversations start happening and you realize—wait a minute, I have no idea what is going on because I don’t even know who these people are or what they want from this situation. Audiences don’t need to be spoon fed, but at some point we need something tangible to work with. The Counselor refuses to give us anything tangible to hold onto.
As best as I could put together, the counselor is in a financial jam of unknown origins (yet he can still drop a serious chunk of change on a big ass diamond ring for Penelope Cruz) and he turns to local scuzzbucket Reiner to help him out. So he enters into a drug deal, doing what, precisely, we never learn and it never really adds up because the drug operation seems to run pretty smoothly anyway, and Westray shows up to…vaguely warn him off the deal, maybe? Westray just exists in order to get Brad Pitt into the movie. He serves no real narrative function. Meanwhile, Malkina schemes to steal the drug shipment (I think) and this ends up getting Ruth’s kid killed and now Ruth is swearing revenge on the counselor along with the cartel from whom the shipment was stolen. Why Ruth blames the counselor for her son’s death or how he ended up holding the bag on the drug deal, we never know. All this bad shit happens to him and we never know why.
It would be one thing if the counselor himself didn’t know, either, if he was just a victim of circumstance because he happened to represent a shady woman and have a shady friend, but he is involved and we don’t know why or how, so when the shit hits the fan, we don’t really care. We’re not invested the counselor—or anyone else—as a person because we simply don’t know them. The Counselor wants to be a cool, edgy, cautionary tale about amoral people doing amoral things, but mostly it’s just a goddamn mess.