Last year's The Counselor had a crazy amazing pedigree: directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy, starring: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt with lots of fun cameos. It got bad reviews and didn't last long in the theaters so I skipped it. I watched it on HBO last night. Then I made the mistake of looking at IMDb message board which is just filled with dribble like "worst film ever" and "you just didn't understand it".
I've never read Cormac McCarthy. I liked the movie No Country for Old Men and found The Road too bleak. I didn't really care for The Counselor but found it an interesting failure. The plot is about a drug heist, and by plot I mean something closer to scheme than story. I could not tell you all the details of the plot, I don't think they were presented. It's interesting that what was presented was done almost entirely visually via cutaways to scenes without the main characters. Ridley Scott is certainly capable of doing that well and as far as screenplay 101, McCarthy is showing the plot and not telling it. But the story is an entirely different matter.
Michael Fassbender is the nameless Counselor. He seems well off and in love with Laura (Penélope Cruz). He has some associations with bad guys Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) though we don't really know exactly what they do. We do see them talk at length about life's excesses of money and women and sometimes evil. Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is Reiner's girlfriend and is often the subject of these descriptions. The Counselor gets involved in some illegal plot. It's not clear if he's broken the law before or if this is just to a new degree. Reiner and Westray both warn him about entering a new world and about the importance of preparing for consequences (which you'd expect a lawyer to already know). He says he's in, but when things start to go bad (and you knew they would), he's unprepared.
This is the story, and it's told in many metaphoric (and if you will literary) conversations overflowing with narrative monologues. Some work, some don't. The important one is delivered by Jefe (Rubén Blades) late in the film. I'm tempted to quote some of it here but I guess that would be a spoiler. Many on the IMDb boards found it the most pretentious and boring of the film; I thought it was a wonderful nihilistic view of life that everyone could learn from (and I hated the final conversation in No Country for Old Men). Ok, here's a line:
And that is because when it comes to grief, the normal rules of exchange do not apply, because grief transcends value. A man would give entire nations to lift grief off his heart. And yet, you cannot buy anything with grief, because grief is worthless.
I think you have to respect a film with a character delivering such a line. However overall the film didn't work for me. Some of the dialog is wonderful but anything plot related is too cryptic and I was frustrated throughout the film (even though I early on figured out the ultimate resolution). The only useful commentary I found on IMDb is by flickfix and I agree, the plot isn't the point, but Tarantino does this much better. If the plot isn't the point, don't have me wasting time trying to figure it out. Maybe he was trying to express that life isn't always clear, but I think it hurt the story.