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Movie Review: "The Counselor" screen writing gone awry

By Ohad Amram Columnist

Any film enthusiast or avid movie-goer would anticipate that a film directed by Ridley Scott, with an all-star cast led by Michael Fassbender, has the potential to be a cinematic masterpiece. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be any further from the truth in “The Counselor.” The film’s downfall is the result of Cormac McCarthy’s debut as a screenwriter. In his novels, McCarthy’s existential themes and provoking prose work effectively. In fact, two of his previous novels that were adapted for the screen, “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men,” display some of the grimmest and most realistic themes portrayed through cinema. That said, McCarthy is a novelist. He is no screenwriter.

It becomes evident within the first twenty, daunting minutes of “The Counselor” that McCarthy wrote the script as a novel. The structure, or rather the lacking structure, of the script leaves the audience frustrated, and more than anything, bored stiff. In the opening the film, we are introduced to a man known only as the Counselor (Fassbender). He is understood to be a defense lawyer who has accidently involved himself in the Mexican drug cartel. After he has been advised by perplexed associate Reiner (Javier Bardem) to steer clear of the situation, we are introduced to yet another mysterious and half-cooked character named Westray (Brad Pitt). Westray appears to be on the other end of the drug trafficking in which the Counselor has involved himself. Laura (Penelope Cruz) is the Counselor’s fiancee and Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is believed to be Reiner’s girlfriend.

The brief encounters of these six under-developed characters accompanied by the lack of plot, makes this movie-going experience seem like a chore. The plot isn’t presented until about an hour into the film, and even then it doesn’t seem to work cohesively. Intimate moments shared between specific characters don’t amount to any sort of relationship or spawn any rooting interest between any of the characters. The dialogue of the film is completely unrealistic. Characters speak in monologues that are so far detached from everyday language, viewers are taken immediately out of the film. In the last half hour a drug lord speaks to Fassbender, explaining the ways of life in the most rhythmic and inconceivable manner. The kingpin even incorporates uncharacteristically lofty, philosophical themes in his speech. The viewers are far beyond suspending their disbelief.

McCarthy exhibits his usual obsession with graphic violence. So much so that he believes this will make up for having no consistent plot or character development. He’s attempting to mimic the Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men” directors) detail-oriented film style, but fails. One of the most memorable scenes in “The Counselor,” however, doesn’t come from violence but is a scene that will undoubtedly remain embedded in your mind well after the film, and will definitely have you talking about Diaz on the ride home from the theater.

The stunning visuals that director Ridley Scott brings to the table are some of the few redeeming qualities of the film, but they are not nearly enough to make up for what McCarthy’s screenplay lacks. The endless establishing shots of desolate desert replicate the idea of “No Country for Old Men,” but it’s evident that McCarthy cannot replicate the way that the Coen Brothers adapted his novel. If nothing else, this should be a testament to the fact that not all writers are screenwriters. One can only imagine how “The Counselor” would have turned out if McCarthy had written it as a novel and it had been adapted by someone else. If that had been the case, then Scott’s direction and Fassbender’s powerful performance would not have been trifled.

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