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The Counselor Is a Cautionary Tale

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In one of the better scenes in The Counselor, a wealthy lawyer (Michael Fassbender) buys an engagement stone from a monoglogueing dealer. Many of the characters a Cormac McCarthy protagonist encounters are philosophical, and this diamond seller is true to form. He holds up a beautiful specimen and declares it a “cautionary stone,” and speaks of humans’ hope “to partake in the stone’s endless destiny…At our noblest we announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives. That we will not thereby be made less.” But this story is not about people at their noblest. Oh, no. It’s about people who choose see the diamond’s price but not its lesson…and the inevitable, bloody consequences of those choices.

The Counselor is also (unintentionally) about the consequences of filmmaking choices that, oh, let’s say, decapitate a film’s chances for singularity, for hypnotism, for depth.

Ridley Scott (Bladerunner, Alien, Thelma & Louise, etc., most recently, Prometheus) directs this uneven cautionary tale with characteristic energy and suspense. Novelist, legend and personal favorite Cormac McCarthy wrote the screenplay. Several McCarthy novels have been adapted into films that complement the books’ graphic poetry—the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men being the prime example. But in The Counselor, McCarthy’s meaning gets lost in the motions, vulgarity serves no discernible purpose, and the image is no match for the (mighty fine) monologues.

I first blamed Scott for the lack of compelling visuals to underscore the heft of McCarthy’s dense spoken lyricism. The composition is competent. The camerawork and editing is proficient. But what this film needed is a visual argument with as much muscle as McCarthy’s best lines (let’s not speak of his worst), and we don’t get one. The most hard-working visual sequence is the one pictured above, which briefly shows the larger societal consequences to the games The Counselors’ characters are playing. Ultimately, this lack of supporting visual imagination is the director’s fault, but it also might be McCarthy’s.

The waiter at my theater was also McCarthy fan and assured me that some of the screenplay was  online, and, indeed, I found a few excerpts here. Although the screenplay format does encourage simplicity, I was struck by how little of the imagery I expect from McCarthy was present. Note the first line of McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses: “The candleflame and the image of the candle flame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” This is the stuff of screenplay adapters’ dreams—the images are all there, right in the text. Now take the first lines of McCarthy’s screenplay for The Counselor: “The counselor’s condominium bedroom. The curtains are drawn and it is all but dark in the room.” There is something to be said for humble expediency in film writing, but I wish some of the novelist’s description would have ego’d its way into the screenplay. Maybe Scott would’ve followed its lead.

What the film also needed was a true femme fatale. Cameron Diaz seemed out of her element here as the amoral, predatorial Malkina. She simpered when she needed to scorch, and the last lines of the film had no bite in her jaws. The aforementioned waiter suggested replacing Diaz with Charlize Theron. My friend Nathan offered Angelina Jolie. I would’ve like to have seen Kristin Scott Thomas transform the role. The rest of the lead cast (Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz) handled themselves respectably, with Brad Pitt’s trademark effortlessness notably buoying up the stylized dialogues’ back-and-forth. But the hole left by Diaz—more Cruella than Cathy Ames—gaped painfully.

Which highlights another downfall of the film: While diamonds and death and choices and consequences all get the Shakespearian treatment, the sex is spectacularly silly. The film starts with a talky bedroom scene that has none of the weighty elegance of some of The Counselors‘ other conversational encounters. It could’ve been a window into why The Counselor and Laura are so in love, but it’s not. We’re left to fill in the blanks of this high-stakes relationship on our own, though Cruz infuses as much emotion as she can into her character’s screen time. We’re also subject to an absurd locker room tale told by Reiner, starring Malkina. At the end, The Counselor asks Reiner, “Why are you telling me this?” My question exactly. “I don’t know,” Reiner answers. Neither do I. The porno-strange story serves to shock, not much else, and as unforgettable as the weirdness may be, it doesn’t move the plot or the theme forward at all.

So go see The Counselor for a few truly amazing monologues and a virtuosic verbosity rare in modern movies. But don’t say I didn’t warn you of whiplash. The highs are highs, but the lows are low, my friends.

 Would you re-cast any of the characters in The Counselor?


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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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12 comments on “The Counselor Is a Cautionary Tale”

  1. Great review Sarah!

  2. I liked it a lot more than you did and you opposite reasons. I saw the weird porn moments as comic relief. They also kept me feeling that “WTF is happening here?” feeling. I liked all the performances, especially Cameron Diaz. She scared the crap out of me. I’m not ordinarily a Diaz fan.
    My problem with the movie is the monologues and lofty language that felt wrong and disjointed with the subject matter. I mean who calls a fight a “donnybrook” anymore? I think this is the result of a novelist trying to write his first script. He wanted to leave in too many of his lovely words and it didn’t work for me.
    Thanks for writing a review of this. I’ve been wondering which of my friends would see it, and what you think.

    • I can totally see how we could have opposite reactions to the film. I’ve been thinking that if I went in with different expectations and maybe in a different mood, I would have walked out with a review a lot more like yours. We’ll have to agree to disagree on “donnybrook” — I wish more people used that word in every day language ; )

  3. More about Brad Pitt please

    • Uggghhh also cheetahs? Just read the NY Times review and they mentioned cheetahs at least three times. Sooo….it can’t be that bad? ;)

    • I forgot to tell you about the Cheetahs. They are amazing! Definitely a highlight…and a strong image that I should’ve given the film credit for.

    • All right, well to make up for it, in the next movie review you write I expect a mention of cheetahs, regardless of what the film is. ;)

    • That hair! Those glasses! Those boots! Those


      missing fingers!

  4. Okay now I’ve seen it. I gotta say that Angelina could have been way meaner and believably evil. Haven’t seen enough of Kristin S-T to imagine her in this role. How about Cate Blanchett? After seeing her in Blue Jasmine I can totally imagine her taking that depressive character and morphing it into an evil one.

    Toby noted that every once in a while Diaz’s little squeaking fun-loving girly voice came out, and it just didn’t work.

    I will say that Javier’s description of his perception of the car scene made me LOL louder than I have in a long time in a movie theater. That got me, so I can only agree with Allyson that some of that was just comedy perhaps…

    Overall, I think “uneven” was a great word to describe this film.

    Oh also–what do you think about all of the new characters that kept being introduced in the last 30 minutes? I was losing my mind….it just seemed like bad story-telling. The rich Mexican guy on the phone (great monologue, but who is this guy?), the other rich guy who said he’d “make a call”, the cocaine guys (INCLUDING one of the main characters from Breaking Bad who came in right at the height of Breaking-Bad-themes in the film), and the banker in the last scene….yeesh!

    If it weren’t for Brad Pitt and those cheetahs I’d only give it 2 stars. But Brad Pitt always adds a star, no matter what.

    • OK, ok. I probably need to lighten up a bit when it comes to absurdly dirty stories for comedic effect. I could see Cate Blanchett being a terrifying Malkina! I think I was prepped by McCarthy books for the addition of random characters, especially at the end of the stories — but it is more disconcerting in the more tightly formatted film medium than in loose narrative novels. Oh, you and your Brad Pitt bonus stars ; )

  5. Solid review! Good calls all around regarding casting. I will read Cormac McCarthy after this.

  6. Hi Sarah…

    I think your review is way off. I cannot understand why films are compared to their book. Films can never rightly be compared to the book. They are two different mediums of expression. As a movie, I found it to be uniquely refreshing compared what is being produced these days. This movie did not have the typical happy ending where the hero gets the girl and they live happily ever after. This was the opposite… happiness in the beginning turns to despair and tragedy in the end. I thought that Cameron Diaz was particularly brilliant in her role. She could pass for a sociopath. In my opinion, it is a stroke of genius. Perhaps ahead of its time.