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‘The Counselor:’ Cold characters, hot air

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • Review

    The Counselor

    An attorney’s life falls apart when he gets involved in a drug trafficking ring. So does the film.

    D STARS: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt.

    WRITER: Cormac McCarthy.

    DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott.

    RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes.

    RATING: R (graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language).

For a quarter century, from 1986 to 2010, you could count on the Scott brothers. Ridley directed metaphysical movies, sometimes cloaking his interest in history or social conditions with swordplay or action sequences. Tony directed mega-physical movies, never cloaking his interest in gunplay and the seamier aspects of life.

Tony committed suicide in August 2012. So what’s Ridley’s first film since his brother’s death? “The Counselor,” made from a Cormac McCarthy screenplay – the first McCarthy has written directly for a movie – about a lawyer whose world disintegrates when he gets involved in drug trafficking.

Is this philosophy-free exploration of violence, sexual voyeurism and degradation a homage to Tony’s career? Either way, it should have been left to his brother or left alone: Ridley Scott had no idea how to make it.

The title character, an attorney so generic that we never know his name, decides to finance a drug deal through a zany Mexican millionaire (Javier Bardem). We learn nothing about The Counselor (Michael Fassbender), except that he’s in love with a sexy woman (Penélope Cruz) and has undefined money troubles.

Naturally, the deal goes bad, jeopardizing The Counselor and another guy in the arrangement (Brad Pitt). The movie quickly identifies the person behind the treachery – the millionaire’s mistress (Cameron Diaz) – so there’s nothing left to do but wade through decapitations, garrotings, shootings, sexual perversity that falls miles short of eroticism and McCarthy’s twaddle. (A sample: “You don’t think that’s rather cold?” “I think truth has no temperature.”)

For a while, it’s fun to watch Bardem camp around in his rose-tinted glasses and stuck-my-finger-in-a-socket hairdo. Fassbender agonizes as if auditioning for “The Passion of the Christ II,” Pitt makes a competent rogue cowboy, and Cruz gives a low-key and effective performance in her non-role. (Diaz locks her face in an ugly sneer and has zero charisma.)

But the endlessly enigmatic conversations and continual introduction of characters who never get defined for us (let alone fleshed out) finally make the movie arid, repetitive and hollow.

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski gives the film a “hot” look, stressing sand-colored and yellow visuals of the kind Tony Scott often favored. Yet Tony and his editors would not have indulged in the languid pacing Ridley and editor Pietro Scalia chose, and Tony would have known better than to draw out a story with a scene such as this: An unidentified corpse is revealed in a barrel by characters we have never met to another character we have never met, then packed up again and sent away.

McCarthy seems to be struggling toward some kind of conclusion about the futility of life, but all he demonstrates is the futility of pretentious screenwriting. Near the end, a minor character observes, “You have told me more than I ever wanted to know.” He was the one person in the film with whom I could identify.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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