So: Ridley Scott directs Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Bruno Ganz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, and John Leguizamo in a thriller written by a novelist who, over the course of nearly half a century, has redefined terse. What could go wrong?
Let’s start with a straight-up verdict from the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy: “Despite its scaldingly hot cast and formidable writer/director combination, The Counselor is simply not a very likable or gratifying film. In fact, it’s a bummer. Set mostly within a certain elite, mostly American adjunct to the corrosive Mexican drug trade, Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay features some trademark bizarre violence and puts some elevated and eloquent words into the mouths of some deeply disreputable figures. The main characters may be twisted but they’re not very interesting and, crucially, you can guess, as well as dread, what’s coming from very early on.”
Scott Tobias, on the other hand, gives The Counselor 3.5 out of 5 stars at the Dissolve: “Among other things, Cormac McCarthy’s work is about coming to terms with the existence of evil in the world—cold, pitiless, unspeakably cruel, and not open to negotiation. Moviegoers got a sharp sense of it from Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s novel, and it’s more present still in The Counselor, a drug thriller that carries McCarthy’s philosophy like a mule across the border. McCarthy devised a plot about a lawyer turned one-time trafficker who’s besieged by setbacks, and director Ridley Scott provided a handful of tense setpieces, including two that employ razor wire in much the same way Chigurh favored a captive bolt pistol. But it’s striking how little McCarthy’s script—and this is, ultimately, Un Film De Cormac McCarthy—seems invested in delivering conventional genre payoffs. This type of story has been told countless times; the film is more interested in what it means.”
Marc Savlov (Austin Chronicle, 3/5): “McCarthy’s storyline whipsaws back and forth between Fassbender’s counselor, who, teetering on a fiscal cliff of his own making, buys into a shady drug deal with the tragically coiffed, dangerously oblivious, Texan kingpin Reiner (Bardem); louche middleman Westray (Pitt, deftly answering the question: ‘Whatever happened to his breakout character J.D. in Scott’s Thelma & Louise?’); and fatalist femme Malkina (Diaz). Awful acts and some seriously fine cinematography from Dariusz Wolski ensue.”
Noting that Scott “once toyed with adapting the writer’s viciously violent oater, Blood Meridian,” the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd finds that the director’s “a fine fit for this tale of cutthroat backdoor business. The film looks spectacular, even as it basically swipes its color palette from No Country, and Scott stages the violence—a doomed getaway attempt, brutal highway fatalities—with his usual icy technical proficiency. No amount of needless chatter can quite dilute the power of The Counselor’s grim endgame, especially given the way its writer and director conspire to keep the threat offscreen, like some terrible, unseen force of nature.”
“Every speech marks the cruel power of greed and condemns not just the weakness but the very smallness of mankind. It’s derivative nonsense.” Mary Pols for Time: “The Counselor is not faux McCarthy; it’s just bad McCarthy.”
“The Counselor is a very bad film,” writes David Thomson for the New Republic, “and I suspect that a lot of the actors knew that already as they did their work. It lacks clarity, plausibility, suspense, and purpose. But it has two lovely cheetahs and the exquisite elegance of Bruno Ganz.”
More from Josh Bell (Las Vegas Weekly, 2/5), Colin Boyd (Las Vegas City Life), and Erik Henriksen (Portland Mercury). Interviews with Scott: Daniel Eagan (Film Journal International) and Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York).
Updates, 10/25: “The story may be initially elusive, but there’s a clarity, solidity and stillness (the camera moves but doesn’t tremble) to [Scott’s] images that augment the narrative’s gravity and inexorable momentum,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “The beauty of the landscapes is about all that feels coherent in an often unrecognizable, unsettling world…. Mr. Scott’s seriousness isn’t always well served by the scripts he films, but in Mr. McCarthy he has found a partner with convictions about good and evil rather than canned formula.”
“This is a movie that does not seem overly interested in its own plot,” writes Dan Callahan at RogerEbert.com. “What it is interested in, unfortunately, is lots of inert scenes in which McCarthy allows his characters to pontificate at length about Big Issues like death, love, money, despair, family and many other things…. What works for him in a novel cannot be said to work for him here.”
“Can a movie be both a catastrophe and strangely compelling—maybe even, gasp, good—at the same time?” asks Bilge Ebiri at Vulture. “It seems The Counselor is determined to find out…. It’s ridiculous, but it has a ragged nobility all its own.”
More from Peter Debruge (Variety), Kate Erbland (Film.com, 6.8/10), Eric Kohn (Indiewire, B), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Katey Rich (Guardian, 2/5), Tom Russo (Boston Globe, 3/4), and Gabe Toro (Playlist, C-).
Updates, 10/26: “The usually dominant and stolid director Ridley Scott allows McCarthy’s penchant for insanely verbose dialogue to swamp the movie,” writes Robert Koehler at arts•meme. “[Elmore] Leonard’s chatter amongst crooks is a model of economy and wit; McCarthy’s is piled high with past participles, run-on phrases, clauses tumbling into more clauses, sentences so obtuse they could only exist on the page and never be spoken…. Leonard reminds in his famed ‘rules’ on writing, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’ Nothing confirms this wisdom better than The Counselor.”
But for Tim Grierson, writing for Screen Daily, “much of the film’s pleasure derives from [McCarthy’s] trademark terse language emanating from the mouths of these disreputable characters.” More from Jason Diamond (Flavorwire), Richard Lawson (Atlantic Wire), Jonathan Robbins (Film Comment), and Forrest Wickman (Slate).
Updates, 10/27: For Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, The Counselor is “the worst movie in the history of the universe (or at any rate, one of the worst I’ve ever seen). Yet at the same time, [its makers] felt honor-bound to poison the well subtly by turning the film into a self-referential commentary on its own terribleness. This is simultaneously an empty and meaningless mainstream atrocity and a work of brilliant cultural subversion (although I’m not saying the latter was intentional or conscious).”
At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell agrees that it “sets the standard for greatest cinematic disappointment of the year, thus far.”
Adam Sternbergh talks with Scott for the NYT Magazine.
Updates, 10/28: “I don’t remember the last time a movie left me so drained of faith in humanity,” writes Henry Stewart at the L. “Here’s a milieu in which a small act of generosity can put you on the road to perdition, where life has no value—none!; where men pay to have sex with the freshly decapitated corpses of young women, where doing business means routine beheadings, and being in love marks you for death or worse—the deaths of everyone else, being robbed of everything that matters…. [I]t’s still devastating to behold the film’s infinite cruelties, especially a scene set at a rally in Juarez in which families raise posters of the missing, the Mexican Drug War’s desaparecidos, underscoring that what you’re watching isn’t just the tragedy of a few border-town gringos but that of a whole society. So, maybe the movie’s utter despondency is the only proper emotional approach. Which, ah, fuck.”
Writing for Film International, Christopher Sharrett sees in contemporary culture “an embrace of apocalypse as a form of wish-fulfillment in all aspects of life—there is no need to elaborate, given the amount of attention paid to death and disaster, to zombies and human disintegration in the cinema and everywhere in popular culture. The Counselor is indeed another symptom, but as such it should, I can only hope, help to refocus us on the nature of the disease.”
Update, 10/30: Taking note of the disappointing box office and sour reviews, Variety‘s Scott Foundas suggests that we “acknowledge that Ridley Scott has been down this road before. Thirty years ago, a little movie called Blade Runner met with a similar kind of bewilderment from the public and cognoscenti alike. It too was cold and austere—it was literally about robots—and, like a number of movies Scott has made since then, deeply indebted to the doomed romances and nihilist poetry of film noir…. The Counselor is not Blade Runner, but it is bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays.”
Updates, 11/10: “Unfortunately, the world that McCarthy has created here can’t fully support the gravity of its monologues,” writes Alyssa Pelish for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The film’s credibility hinges on two elements that have never been McCarthy’s strong suit: women and romantic love…. And so the film feels inconsequential. We can’t quite believe in its laws because we don’t quite believe in its world.”
Here in Keyframe, Chuck Bowen has a word for those who’ve panned the film so harshly: “To react so strongly, even negatively, to The Counselor is to weirdly overrate it, as it’s just a bad movie—a dull bit of hokum puffed up with its creators’ delusions of grandeur.”