Niagara Gazette

October 22, 2013

CALLERI: 'The Counselor' ambles along a familiar trail

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — For the new drug cartel movie, “The Counselor,” screenwriter Cormac McCarthy has come up with an innovative way to kill someone.

Perhaps the cruel method has been used before in one of those bottom-of-the-barrel pictures that go straight to DVD, and about which I’m unaware, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen it in a big-budget, mainstream studio production.

Without being overly graphic, it involves an unbreakable wire, a motor, and the human body. Let’s leave it at that. Another method used by a killer on an empty highway near the beginning of the film is a different twisted means of dispatching one’s enemy. As the motorized garrote was being utilized, once the surprise jolt of the moment hit me, I literally had to avert my eyes. It’s that grotesque.

I’m offering a warning not only because the killing is carried out in an excessive manner, but also because its use certifies one of the problems with the movie. The entire storyline seems to exist solely for the purpose of making sure this particularly grisly lethal weapon is highlighted.

“The Counselor,” which takes place along the United States-Mexico border, is loaded with generic drug cartel material. Even the dirt and dust of the arid locales (southwest Texas here) seem trucked in from much better films, including, and especially, Steven Soderbergh’s great “Traffic.” The fast cars and duplicitous behavior among criminals is right out of Sam Peckinpah’s engaging version of “The Getaway,” including the use of El Paso as a setting, and the wearing of large cowboy hats, one of which is worn by Brad Pitt.

Michael Fassbender plays a lawyer (the counselor of the title), who is smart enough to know not to get involved with drug dealers. But greed and his happy new marriage to Penelope Cruz cloud his mind, so he participates in a trafficking escapade with Javier Bardem’s rich facilitator, whose lover is Cameron Diaz. Pitt is a key part of the mismatched equation; a mysterious money man who can disappear at will. He says that if need be, he can change his spots and move to a monastery and become a monk.

And speaking of spots, Diaz, wearing tight skirts and exhibiting a body-length leopard spot tattoo, hovers in the background. And yes, there are live leopards, two of them. They are treated as house pets and even get to sit in a restaurant listening to a piano player. At one point, Diaz, sleek in a clinging, hooded, neutral-colored dress, and looking a bit like Little Gray Riding Hood, begins to resemble a leopard.

Bardem, who cackles a lot, lets his hair do some of his acting. It’s jet black, spiky, and sweeps up and back like the rooster fin of a 1950s Cadillac Eldorado. He also wears a lot of bronzer, which makes him look like a tarnished Academy Award statue.

When the quirkiness of a film’s characters and backdrop begin to overwhelm the story, you’ve got serious problems.

The thrust of “The Counselor” is that drugs are moved from Juarez to Chicago in steel drums packed into the tanks of trucks used to clean septic systems. Yes, it’s as disgusting as it sounds. Why no one at the border questions why excrement needs to be shipped to Chicago is anyone’s guess. As for Chicago, it shows up in the movie in a laughable moment. You don’t need a degree in filmmaking — or even a road map — to recognize the dusty, sun-drenched light levels peculiar to southwest Texas, which passes for the Windy City. In fact, look at the right side of the screen, and you’ll see tall peaks. You know, those famous mountains surrounding Chicago, one of the flattest places in America.

One of the five key characters (played by Fassbender, Pitt, Bardem, Diaz, or Cruz — I won’t tell who) advances with a game of double-cross, which leads us to the ultimate round of death threats and actual murders, including the blood-soaked garroting. I will tell you that it’s not the unintelligible and lackluster Rosie Perez, who plays a woman in prison.

“The Counselor” is the first theatrical feature written by McCarthy, famous for his novels and penchant for nihilism. His lethargic screenplay gets the nihilism right, but he’s gotten himself bogged down by ennui. The characters keep talking past each other. There are many moments when cast members look away from the person to whom they’re speaking, sometimes completely beyond the frame.

Who was standing there? Director Ridley Scott whispering “give me style, because we’ve got no substance?” McCarthy and Scott fail their cast. Fassbender and Pitt try their best, but not even they can energize the proceedings.

Things fall apart because of paranoia, not actual events. It’s supposed to be ironic. It isn’t.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.