Movie Review: ‘The Counselor’ in need of emotional help

For a film with an impenetrable plot, inscrutable, two-dimensional characters and a preposterous sex scene involving Cameron Diaz and a poor, unsuspecting windshield (not to mention a shocked Javier Bardem), the drug-deal-gone-bad thriller “The Counselor” is, at times, oddly gripping.

It stars Michael Fassbender as the unnamed “counselor,” a lawyer who turns to a one-time drug trafficking deal in the wake of his dire financial circumstances. A novice to the drug business, the counselor constantly seeks advice from his associates. Some tell him to go through with the deal, while others object.

Except none of the advice proves to be particularly helpful, despite incessant, sometimes intolerable philosophizing and glib pontificating. Everyone has something to say to the counselor, yet he struggles to apply their wisdoms to his own precarious situation when a coincidence of fatal proportions sets the Mexican drug cartel after him.

Perhaps that has something to do with the advice itself, which is expressed in defiantly vague dialogue, the kind of euphemistic speech characteristic of men and women whose source of income is too shady to discuss in specifics.

Take one scene, for example, in which a character tells the counselor, “In some worlds, bodies are buried in the desert; in others, on the street. When you cease to exist, the world you’ve created will also cease to exist.”

What does all this mean, you ask?

I have no idea. Neither does the counselor himself, and that’s the point.

Because answers and specifics are irrelevant in this film, which isn’t about its plot or its characters so much as it is about the fact that those things exist in the first place. The film is about its audience trying to make sense of a movie whose characters try to make sense of the cruel, senseless world in which they live. It’s about philosophy itself, how describing reality doesn’t change it, that actions will always have consequences regardless of interpretations.

What good is advice and worldviews if one’s fate has already been decided?

It’s heavy stuff. Maybe even a little too heavy for a film that uses sex and women to exemplify the great mysteries and uncertainties of the universe. And it would all be rather laughable too, except the movie’s grim environment and cutthroat characters don’t allow for much cheer.

In one scene, a man on a motorcycle loses his head to a piece of perfectly placed wire. In another scene, a woman is chased down in a parking garage and subsequently beaten, her body later tossed into a landfill. When a character on screen actually cracks a smile, it’s usually a response to some ghastly outcome, say, perhaps, a dead body stuffed into a barrel for smuggling.

Yet there’s something attractive about all the callous deadpanning, the film’s cool sense of detachment from its audience, reflected in the unlikable characters and unadorned, economical visual style, a style that conveys just enough information to keep things tense while maintaining the thin and barely coherent plot.

Thus, there is nothing rewarding about “The Counselor.” There are no emotional payoffs, no unexpected plot twists and no happy endings. In fact, it’s barely a movie in the traditional sense, and more of an unforgiving, almost sadistic contemplation on uncertainty that revels in denying the audience information.