I’ve come to the conclusion that Cormac McCarthy is incapable or writing interesting women, but he thinks he knows a lot about them. The men in his screenplay for Ridley Scott’s slick, pulpy and sweaty “massive drug deal gone awry” flick The Counselor spend most of the film’s runtime spouting off quasi-philosophical macho riffs on life and greed and chicks, man…chicks, they’re like crazy. The men toggle between misogyny and bafflement. The character played by Javier Bardem (who, god bless him, tells the story to Michael Fassbender’s protagonist with comically black glee) knows his chick is crazy because of the way she made love to his Ferrari. No, I’m not kidding…the woman literally humps the car.
That woman, the inexplicably named Malkina, is inexplicably played by Cameron Diaz, who looks great and gives it her all, but just isn’t up to par for this type of role. She’s borderline camp, and a better actress (an Angelina Jolie perhaps?) would’ve either gone whole-hog with the camp or truly smoldered. – POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD – You see, because McCarthy thinks he’s so crafty and knows so much about women (who are all perverts according to him), it’s Malkina who is actually controlling this complicated, never fully explained plot, and the men who think they are so smart are just her pawns she is more than happy to topple over.
Meanwhile, Penelope Cruz, sexy as always, is wasted in an underwritten “naughty church girl” role.
Where McCarthy makes his biggest mistake, however, is that the woman truly in power here, the “mother of all mothers” as Brad Pitt’s cautionary middle-man describes her to our dim anti-hero, is played in one great scene by the underused and underrated Rosie Perez. You don’t really know she is the powerful drug cartel mamma that she is in this scene (this is only revealed later as the chips start to fall) but Perez is wonderful in her brief moment and allows Fassbender to spout off the film’s funniest line at her expense. Little does he know, she’s not a woman to be made fun of, but McCarthy never gives us any other insight into the empire she’s running from behind bars, and Perez is never given another moment to lift the film to the heights McCarthy and director Scott had probably envisioned for this sordid epic of sleaze, greed and corruption.
It’s a shame, because The Counselor had a lot going for it. Though there are obvious gaping thematic problems with McCarthy’s script, some of the individual scenes and stretches of dialogue are deliciously obtuse and darkly humorous. Scott directs things with a sure hand, and the cinematography (mostly focused on the US-Mexican border) by Darius Wolski is finely crafted. Daniel Pemberton’s tic-toc music score is particularly good and covers ups most of the film’s pacing problems. Imagine what the music could’ve enhanced had the film been edited more intelligently. Despite the lax pacing, there is still excellent foreshadowing of graphically violent moments, whose revelations are handled with professional panache by Scott, who has always been good at these type of classy shock scenes - I dare you to find more interesting beheadings in another film this year. And Scott wisely holds back and only implies the film’s most gruesome shock in the penultimate moments.
The cast, as well, with the exception of Diaz, is top drawer and there’s a happy parade of notable faces in bit parts, but I would’ve loved to have seen more of Goran Visnjic or Natalie Dormer – who like Perez are wasted. Bardem and Pitt clearly have fun with their parts but it’s all for naught.
In the lead role, a character who remains nameless and is only ever referred to by his title, Michael Fassbender acts as if he is in a far more serious film. Because he’s truly in love with Penelope Cruz’s character, we’re meant to believe his character has the most to lose. But without a back-story, the audience is given no real reason to care about his fate or Cruz’s.
In the film’s opening moments, Diaz’s character responds to Bardem’s insinuation that she’s cold by replying, “The truth has no temperature.” In the hands of a more versatile writer (for all his greatness, McCarthy has always played one note) and a better actress, Malkina might have become a femme fatale for the ages. Instead, she’s rendered tepid, which makes The Counselor, for all its finely glossed pieces, a lost opportunity at a great neo-noir.
Written by David H. Schleicher