They say the devil’s in the details. It’s a jaunt in the hips; the cheetah at the party; the black suit versus the white suit. But The Counselor is a movie that’s all about the lack of details as it sweeps the audience up into an intimate whirlwind of crime. It’s a complicated and dramatic thriller, perhaps a little overly so. Cocksure in its complexity, the movie is so concerned with setting up its endgame that it ventures into incoherency. It’s certainly downright riveting, but it never fully explains why it needs so much intricacy.
The titular counselor, played by Michael Fassbender, quickly finds himself in over his head when he decides to dabble in the dark world of drug trafficking with the cartel to make a quick buck. You don’t learn his—or anyone’s—backstory. The audience learns only brief facts mentioned in conversation or inferred through cinematic suggestion (it’s clear that the sleek and fashionable lifestyle of the counselor is not in desperate need of the spare cash). Even the cartel is relegated to the shadows, found only in haunting hearsay and one monumental phone call.
It’s trademark Cormac McCarthy fare: a cryptic plot driven by hint-laden dialogue comes with the territory. The Counselor is McCarthy’s first original screenplay, and it can't quite rival the cinematic prose of the Academy Award-winning McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men. In the case of The Counselor, he seems to falls back on clichéd film tropes. There’s still McCarthy’s signature brutal violence on the U.S-Mexico border and Javier Bardem running around with crazy hair, but it now comes coupled with Hollywood-hustler dialogue and plenty of the Madonna-whore complex (though writing substantive women has never been McCarthy’s strong suit). The film hangs loosely on the premise of the best-laid plans for $21 million in drugs and focuses a bit more on the moral question at its center: why a man with a fiancée like Penelope Cruz (who plays Laura, the naïve betrothed of Fassbender’s character) would risk it all in the name of greed.
The Counselor might work better if its philosophical quandaries were simplified to create a smoother and more concentrated thriller. All the mess due to lack of details doesn’t diminish the somber blow of the grim final act—Ridley Scott directed it after all—and his technical proficiency often leads to unfeeling, icy violence. But in the end, it’s clear that Scott and McCarthy tried to craft a devilish drama, but weren’t nearly detailed oriented enough to create a film with their desired depth.
The Counselor opens nationwide October 25.