Film review: The Counsellor

Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy come together to forge one of the year’s worst films, writes Donald Clarke

Film Title: The Counsellor

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rubén Blades

Genre: Crime

Running Time: 117 min

Fri, Nov 15, 2013, 00:00



Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rubén Blades, Rosie Perez, Natalie Dormer, Goran Višnjic, Bruno Ganz 16 cert, general release, 117 min

Sparks of excitement spread about the world when it was announced that Ridley Scott was to film an original script by Cormac McCarthy. Why not? That writer has, over the past decades, proved himself a master of the existential western. Book such as The Road and No Country for Old Men read like screenplays in prose form. Not every film Ridley Scott directed over the past 10 years was appalling. Only so much could go wrong. Right?

Wrong. Watching the baroque catastrophe that has resulted – a verbose narco-thriller set along the Mexican border – one hunts desperately for useful comparisons. The bloody bling gestures unconsciously towards Oliver Stone’s recent, useless Savages. The mechanical twists suggest a John Grisham film with a screwdriver jammed in its brain. More than anything else, however, The Counsellor recalls Guy Ritchie’s legendarily awful Revolver. This is not an allusion to be made carelessly. But everything is in place: the ostentatious monologues, the impenetrable plot, the preposterously heightened violence. Might this be the worst film ever written by a Pulitzer Prize winner? It’s certainly a contender.

We begin with “the Counsellor” (like the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine, known by his job title alone) and his glamorous girlfriend exchanging smut beneath the sort of billowing sheets that only Ridley Scott can aestheticise with such empty panache. Michael Fassbender and Penélope Cruz play the lovers with the same look of panic that will later overcome such talents as Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Bruno Ganz. The protagonist makes for Amsterdam to buy a huge engagement ring for his lover. We are, however, already aware that nobody in this universe is likely to encounter happy endings. Soon the Counsellor is involved in a complex drug deal that – in ways too boring to explain – involves energetic crook Bardem, laid-back crook Pitt and evil sorceress Diaz.

Much has already been made of the deeply embarrassing scene that requires Ms Diaz to straddle a car windshield and rub her naked parts from top to bottom. Mr Bardem can barely bring himself to mouth the ludicrous (and openly misogynous) line that compares her pudenda to a sea creature. But nobody escapes unscathed from The Counsellor. As if accepting punishment for some terrible unspoken crime, each of the actors is required to say, do and observe things no decent person should say, do or observe.

To be fair, the distinguished team works very hard. Dariusz Wolski’s photography has a blotched glare that catches the heat of southern Californian and the vulgarity of its criminal aristocracy. Ridley reminds us how much of his suave look derived from an apprenticeship in advertising. You would, in short, have trouble arguing that the film-makers have not made the best of McCarthy’s deranged ramblings. The Counsellor may be terrible, but it surely looks and sounds as the writer intended.

It is like watching a group of decent, polite people trying to cope with the arrival of a certifiable lunatic to their hitherto civilised party. Everyone nods along patiently trying to pretend that the distinguished maniac – McCarthy’s script in our analogy – is, despite his decision to wear the ice bucket and eat the bonsai tree, behaving in the most sophisticated of fashions.

Poor Rubén Blades is, perhaps, saddled with the most indigestible stream of dialogue in a script not short of gastric annihilators. During a lengthy conversation with the Counsellor, he puts forward a theory of existence derived from the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (honestly). You know how this goes. In one universe Michael and Penélope live happily. In another their story ends tragically. In one parallel existence The Counsellor was axed during the initial script meeting. Can I live there, please?