Just as some films seem to be charmed from the outset, others seem to be jinxed - judging by the generally hostile response to it, The Counselor seems to fall in the latter category. Its hip all-star cast toplined by man of the moment Michael Fassbender, name director and tony pedigree seem to have become an albatross round the neck of the project; the whiff of pre-packaged Hollywood Oscar bait surrounded what had originally excited many observers, after beginning as novelist Cormac McCarthy's first original film screenplay.

     In truth, whoever thought Mr. McCarthy's story would make a sure-fire blockbuster must have been out of his mind; it's a startlingly violent trip down his terse, abstract storytelling and bleak worldview, as dazzlingly written (with his trademark hardboiled dialogue) as it is defiantly dislikeable and confrontational. It's the tale of a drug deal gone wrong that destroys the fragile cocoon of a high-flying, high-maintenance Dallas defense lawyer (Mr. Fassbender) who dabbles in the "dark arts" of shady money-making deals. Part "no one here gets out alive", part "no good deed goes unpunished", The Counselor is a highly stylized, claustrophobically downbeat trip down Southern gothic and noir territories. Its characters are known by a single name - or, in some cases, like that of Mr. Fassbender's Counselor, not even that - and left open enough for the actors to imprint themselves on them; more strikingly so in an unexpected, against-type turn by Cameron Diaz as a leopard-spot-tattooed gangster moll with no shame nor scruples.

     But Mr. McCarthy's suffocating morality play, as inexorable in its fatalism as both previous film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road, has not found its match in the glossy aesthetics of director Ridley Scott, who committed to the script early on and just out of the intriguing Prometheus. Theoretically, writer and director would be complementary - Mr. McCarthy an expert, minimalist sketcher, Mr. Scott a visual maximalist - but the end result suggests they crossed each other without actually ever meeting. As in many of the director's contemporary-set films, there's a sense he is more concerned about the look and the style of the film than about the ideas, though it must be said there's a welcome embrace of the story's violence and it ends up one of his least mannered films. An undeniably talented image-maker, Mr. Scott turns out here to be an overbearing illustrator, in an adroit, professional and reasonably consistent way - but without ever making this borderline biblical tale of crime and punishment as gripping as it had the potential to be. But why all of this seems to have irritated people to the point of calling The Counselor a memorable bust of a movie - when so many worse projects go by, ahem, scot free - is fairly beyond me.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Cormac McCarthy
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Designer: Arthur Max
Costumes: Janty Yates
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Producers: Mr. Scott, Nick Wechsler, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz  (Fox 2000 Pictures, Scott Free Productions, Nick Wechsler Productions and Chockstone Pictures in association with TSG Entertainment Finance, Ingenious Media and Big Screen Productions)
USA/United Kingdom, 2013, 117 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, November 12th 2013


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