THE COUNSELOR (M18)
118 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ ** 1/2
The story: A lawyer whom everyone calls The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) decides to get into business with drug dealer Westray (Brad Pitt) at the advice of business partner Reiner (Javier Bardem). Reiner and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) live a life of ostentatious luxury that The Counselor desires. He puts the life of his fiance Laura (Penelope Cruz) in danger when a deal with the ruthless Mexican cartel goes wrong.
How does this happen? How does a star-studded cast of award-winning actors, celebrated director Ridley Scott and a script from acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy result in a work so trite and so bloated?
On the surface at least, it sounds like a sure-fire success: Take director Scott's habit of overstatement, weld it to this story of people engorged on drug money, and the result should be suitably epic - a trip to hell, sumptuously illustrated.
The downward spiral of a man (Fassbender) caught in a web spun by people of unimaginable and implacable cruelty is familiar ground for McCarthy, who used a similar idea in his novel No Country For Old Men, the basis for the 2007 film of the same title which won four Oscars.
The bleakness of his vision is in full effect here. As in No Country, and in his post-apocalypse survival story The Road (2009), the masters of the Earth are those who see owning a conscience as a luxury they cannot afford. Those who choose goodness must also choose weakness, and their place at the bottom of the food chain. In The Road, that food chain is meant literally.
If No Country was styled by the Coen brothers as a western, marked by intimate and tense face-offs between predator and prey, Scott and McCarthy have opted to make this a Great Gatsby-style portrait of the corrupt rich.
Their idea of making it all look interesting run along the same lines as producers of hip-hop videos. There is plenty of garishness on display in the lives of Malkina (Diaz) and Reiner (Bardem, who also appeared in No Country, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the unforgettable hitman Anton Chigurh).
Bardem slouches about in loud shirts and chuckles a lot, while constantly reminding the Counselor of the horrors that befall those who fail the Mexican overlords, as does Pitt's Westray.
No, the foreshadowing is not subtle, and neither is the symbolism. Textbook femme fatale Malkina hunts deer with pet cheetahs and purrs as she makes overtures at the pure, innocent Laura (Cruz). She has cheetah spot tattoos on her back and could not scream feline cunning louder unless she were also wearing a Catwoman costume. She grinds herself against a sports car, just in case her love of power and money is not made clear enough.
Fassbender's performance as a man in a Faustian bargain elevates the material; Cruz's part is underwritten. If any good comes from this film, it would be to show the Coens, in adapting McCarthy's novel into a screenplay, fully deserved their screenwriting Oscar.
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