Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘Counselor’ makes slick but miserable use of Fassbender

There are many writers, great writers, who excel in one form but not in another. Vince Gilligan will not be remembered ultimately as the writer of “Wilder Napalm” and “Home Fries,” but rather as the brain behind “Breaking Bad.” David Chase probably doesn’t have to worry about “Not Fade Away” eclipsing “The Sopranos” as his crowning accomplishment. Those guys have television in their DNA. They understand how to use that form, that storytelling rhythm, to maximum effect, and with their voices turned to something as fundamentally different in style as a 100-minute movie, they seem constricted.

Cormac McCarthy is a hell of a writer. Anything I say about him comes with the obvious caveat that he is freakin’ Cormac McCarthy. His books almost feel like fights you’ve been in when you think back on them. They are tussles, these dense collections of horrible and ugly that illustrate a fairly dark world view, daring the reader to go full-on into McCarthy’s various hellscapes. At Toronto, I saw James Franco’s film adaptation of “Child Of God,” and I’ll say this for him: he is unflinching in trying to wrestle McCarthy’s exact prose up onto the screen, and that includes a lot of things that audiences really might not expect to end up confronting, or want to. And while he hasn’t always gone dark, “Blood Meridian” and “No County For Old Men” are both about as grim as you can get, unless you consider “The Road,” which makes jet-black look white.

One of the things that makes it possible to endure the darkest of McCarthy’s visions is the beauty of his prose. He has an amazing way with language, and like many of my favorite writers, what makes him special isn’t necessarily the story he tells, but the way he tells it. That is largely absent from “The Counselor,” the new Ridley Scott film that opens tomorrow. This is definitely the same sort of world that we’ve seen in his work before, but the language of his prose is gone, meaning all we’re left with is the oblique plotting and the terrible, terrible behavior and the horrible, dark, awful people that fill out his world.

I cannot imagine the sorrow that Ridley Scott is feeling still over the death of his brother Tony Scott. It’s strange how much this feels like a Tony Scott film. I mean, when we meet two of the bad guys, they’re watching their cheetahs hunt rabbits in Texas. That is as Tony Scott as it could possibly be, but even if this didn’t feel like it takes place in the same universe as something like “Man On Fire” or “Beverly Hills Cop 2,” Tony’s death is obviously on Ridley’s mind. This is as dour a rumination on just how miserably unfair and uncaring death is as I’ve ever seen a studio release, and while they’re selling it as a sort of a caper movie with Michael Fassbender getting in over his head and then having to find a way out of trouble, that is not the film they actually made. This is a film in which death will find you, and it will brutalize you, and there is no dignity in it at all. It is cold and it is angry, and it may be the most pessimistic, unhappy film Ridley Scott’s ever made.

He’s never been a bag of sunshine, but he’s also never made a movie from this deep in a hole. The film starts with a moment of bliss, as The Counselor (Michael Fassbender’s character is never given a name in the film) lays in bed with the oh-so-fetching Laura (Penelope Cruz). She has one job in the film: be heartbreakingly beautiful. She accomplishes this. She’s a symbol, though, not a character. She is the life that The Counselor wants to lead, and in order to do that, he’s got to dirty his hands and dabble in the world where his client Reiner (Javier Bardem) dwells. Reiner’s a drug dealer, a hustler, a criminal of indeterminate crime. The film never quite spells anything out, which is absolutely on-purpose. McCarthy writes around things. He seems fascinated by just how far he can push a scene or a character without ever coming right out and making any sort of direct statement.

In order to finance what he believes is his dream life, he finds himself dealing with shady people, moving money around. It is unclear exactly what money he’s moving, or what it’s supposed to accomplish, but when things go wrong, Westray (Brad Pitt) tells The Counselor that there are no options. He is going to have to run, even if he has no idea how to do that. Westray is the old pro, the guy who’s done this a zillion times, who has money socked away around the world. He’s the one who can walk away at a moment’s notice and never be seen again. He’s the one who knows what all the angles are, who has dodged every bullet.

There’s really not much else to the film. The Counselor tries to make some dirty money. Something goes wrong. He and his dear ones pay for it. Cameron Diaz plays Malkina, the woman who Reiner has been seeing, and she’s an animal as written. There is a scene involving a short skirt and a convertible’s windshield that should be a show-stopper, but Diaz is so arch that it doesn’t work. There’s not a single moment of the film where it feels like Diaz is playing an actual person. She’s just bad for the sake of being bad. Someone told Malkina she’s evil, and so she does everything in a way that blatantly says, “I am evil.” It’s the most obvious choice in how to play a “bad guy,” and it doesn’t work.

When I put “bad guy” in quotes, it’s because this moral landscape that McCarthy wrote is nothing but awful people. There’s no real reason anyone should care about the fate of The Counselor, not even for the sake of Laura. None of the rest of the characters offer any sort of moral compass, and the stakes seem oddly low considering there’s a $20 million figure thrown around a few times. The way things escalate in the film’s last half-hour is ridiculous, and while I wasn’t really enjoying the film up to that point, it just reaches a tipping point where it’s impossible to care about any of the rotten things happening. There is a particularly callous end for one character that I found genuinely offensive. It is the sort of thing you put in a film when you want to rub the audience’s nose in something, dark in an infantile way.

Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is gorgeous, and I really liked the score by Daniel Pemberton. Technically speaking, it’s a striking film. But even in terms of look, Tony Scott seems to be a big influence on this one. I am troubled by how unsparingly ugly this one is, and I hope it is an aberration in Ridley Scott’s career. If this is his permanent world view now and he continues to chase this sort of thematic morass, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to watch. For a beautiful film, “The Counselor” is unbearably ugly, and to little real point.

“The Counselor” opens tomorrow.