Many films gamble enjoyment on finding the supposed ‘perfect cinematic formula.’ Employ a veteran director? Check. Base the film off a popular book by Cormac McCarthy? Check. Stock film with Oscar winners, nominees, and hopefuls? Got it. Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor claims to have struck the balance of this formula. The film follows a defense counselor (Michael Fassbender) who enters a drug trafficking scheme so as to start a life with his fiancé Laura (Penelope Cruz). The Counselor soon discovers that when one thing goes wrong, everything does, often with disastrous consequences. Despite so-called strengths, The Counselor manages to both bore and confuse audiences. With its preachy nature, ambiguity, and misogyny, the film shows when you manufacture a perfect formula, a film more easily falls apart.
The film attempts to entice audiences with the mysterious and erotic opening of the Counselor and Laura sharing pillow talk underneath the sheets. Scott does a great job in setting audiences in a fragmented space. Two spaces exist within this scene: first is the intimate space between the Counselor and Laura, pure and naïve as demonstrated by the whiteness of their sheets. Second is the space of the desert, unpredictable and desolate. These spaces are often in conflict throughout the film as the Counselor tries to separate his personal life from the trafficking scheme. This ambiguity grows throughout the film through some subtle stylistic choices, such as the choice not to divulge the Counselor’s actual name. By not giving the Counselor a name, audiences understand his identity is connected through his job and that it will lead to his dehumanizing transformation at the end of the film.
After the first half of buildup, McCarthy’s writing decides to throw subtlety out the window. Though this movie could have been a ninety-minute film, each character stopping to give the Counselor life advice gives the already dragging film an extra hour. Speeches that explain character motivations remove the beginning mystery from the film. Each speech given so clearly foreshadows events in the film that it completely destroys the shock value of what should be a horrific ending. While the moral lessons are being beaten over our heads, key information is left a mystery throughout the film. What kind of defense counselor was the Counselor? There is indication in the middle of the film that he had the potential to be corrupt, but that point is not pursued further. In addition, what is the point of Cameron Diaz’s character, other than to play up the femme fatale? The moral lessons can only work if the audiences have the context to have these lessons explained. This thematic inconsistency is only accentuated in McCarthy’s fragmented framing technique and unnecessarily disjointed points of view.
The misogynistic tendencies underscoring the film should be enough to draw audiences away. In films dealing with sexism, a difference should be made between characters being misogynistic and the film itself being misogynistic. However, The Counselor has made the choice to become a ‘tell-all’ about how much women love wild sex. Much of the dialogue exchange between the Counselor and Reiner are about how women need to be entertained sexually. Once women have found what they like, they look for nothing else. Sexism extends into the stylistic elements of the film, most notably in the binary between Laura and Malkina, played by Cameron Diaz. They become the physical manifestations of the Madonna and the whore complex. While Laura wears the crucifix to go with her white suits, Cameron Diaz is covered with tattoos and has a penchant for having sex with automobiles. In addition, women are only viewed as something to be desired, abused, and then literally tossed away. The film is more an extended version of the song “Blurred Lines.” All that’s missing is a Robin Thicke cameo telling Malkina “but you’re an animal, baby. It’s in your nature.”
If you don’t wish to become frustrated—or just like the sight of yellow Ferraris—it would be best to avoid this film.