Every year, several films are released that have very strong formal, stylistic characteristics to them that audiences and critics alike seem to fixate on the “style over substance” debate. An example from earlier this year is Only God Forgives by Nicholas Winding Refn and one from 2011 would be Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. The Counselor has a more subdued visual style, but arguably falls in this category. Directed by Veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) with a screenplay written by esteemed author Cormack McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), The Counselor follows a lawyer who gets involved in a drug deal that, eventually, goes horribly, horribly wrong. McCarthy’s screenplay contributes heavily to the style of the film. It is so dense and poetic but, at the same time, largely incomprehensible. It flows beautifully from certain actors, such as Michael Fassbender or Brad Pitt and awkwardly from others.
The cinematography is particularly beautiful and is reminiscent of the 2007 Cohen Brothers film No Country for Old Men, since they are both situated along the American/Mexican border. One of the first opening shots is a cheetah hunting a jackrabbit whilst two characters watch as the sun sets. It is gorgeously framed and lit and seems to communicate the purpose of the scene through purely formal elements. It presents a beautiful yet extremely bleak landscape where the hunters rule and the hunted are ex posed and destroyed. The production design is lavish to the extreme; people are dressed impeccably and expensively. It blends exceptionally well with the cinematography creating an orgy of aesthetic pleasure on screen. All this is not to say that the film has no plot; it has a mildly thrilling one that escalates to the levels of brutality one would expect from McCarthy. There are also some moments of real hilarity, if one has a slightly twisted sense of humour that includes but is not limited to a certain character performing one of the most bizarre sex scenes of the year. The outrageous factor of The Counselor is not borne from a desire for shock value; rather it is due to the absolute nihilistic philosophy that is found in most of McCarthy’s work. This may create a dissonance for certain people and this film is certainly not a crowd pleaser.
Michael Fassbender is great, as always, and when things start to go bad he truly shines. He is by far the strongest performer, fitting in with ease into the role of the unnamed character merely eponymously called, the counselor. Cameron Diaz gives a fun, psychotic performance in what is arguably her best role in years as a femme fatale archetype taken to the extreme. Javier Bardem also gives quite a fun performance while Penelope Cruz frankly doesn’t have much to do. The cast is full of greats filling in bit parts, actors such as John Leguizamo.
While not as good as most were hoping for, The Counselor still manages to conjure a certain level of enjoyment and intellectual interest for an audience member. If one can manage to follow the inextricable dialogue then you will get something out of it. The film is without a doubt a formal masterpiece that will sway some and disappoint others. Unpacking it and understanding it after multiple viewings will, without a doubt, allow for a better understanding and appreciation of this singular film.