The existential nihilist goes to the movies

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3SR: Circling the drain like turds in a bowl, the characters in The Counselor serve little purpose other than to annoy the crap out of anyone watching.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Cormac McCarthy

Thriller. 1hr 57mins. R16 for graphic violence, sex scenes and offensive language.

★★

The trailer for The Counselor is a flashy, thrilling little thing that hints at a dark heist-gone-wrong film  from two masters of their arts, director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy, uniting to do for cinema what Pulitzer winning McCarthy did for the great American Novel.

Pity the actual film is an absolute dirge then, huh?

‘‘Counselor’’ (Michael Fassbender) is a successful lawyer with a beautiful fiance, a beautiful car and some very dodgy friends.

When he goes in with them on a big money drug deal it’s supposed to be a one time thing. But the deal goes bad and Counselor’s one time dalliance with the dark side could end up costing him everything he holds dear.

No sugar coating it, The Counselor is incredibly boring.

Like a tarot deck of archetypes, characters come and go in a succession of decadent, and slickly shot settings, with little or no context, depositing great swathes of verbal diarrhoea on Fassbender’s blank-slate ‘‘innocent’’, Counselor.

Meanwhile, Counselor, whose bland perspective dominates, strolls towards his new and exciting life as a drug baron with all the charm and urgency of a menswear catalogue model.

He’s never given a name in these meetings. He’s simply the Counselor, since he is both a lawyer – what American’s call counsel – and at times the receptacle of his friends’ and acquaintances’ founding principles, absorbing and reflecting the information like a therapist, rather than showing any critical judgement.

So much, so smug-in-joke, but it makes for a terrible cinema going experience.

At best it’s like being trapped in the toilet at an LA movie industry party with a succession of cocaine addled philosophiser-strangers bending your ear, at worst it’s bearing witness to someone else’s therapy sessions for hours on end.

Massively self indulgent and tiresome, each philosophically dense monologue is laden with enough weighty ideas to provide themes for a thousand art house or student films.

But piled up here, it’s the intellectual equivalent of a train wreck, an almighty mess of concepts as confusing, arcane and overwhelming as any real life tragedy. Only, you know, incredibly dull.

At one point, Counselor goes to buy a diamond for his fiance and is gifted not only with a meaningful lesson in diamond grading but a stream of philosophical hogwash about impermanence, too.

By buying precious jewels to adorn our loved ones, the dealer tells him, ‘‘we announce to eternity we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives’’.

This joyful little gem is the central tenet of the film: Life is one long, frantic, desperate dash away from reality, towards a permanent peace and joy that never comes.  We can really only be present to our fates when we accept this.

Counselor’s bid for love with Laura (an incredibly Luminous Penelope Cruz), the diamond dealer seems to say, is just a doomed bid for permanence, and like the film, an illusion that is ultimately unsustainable.

How cheery!

Like the unholy love child of Breaking Bad and Waiting for Godot, detailed threats of violence play out in The Counselor with brutal inevitability – discussion of beheading and mechanical garottes and snuff films create a kind of sick tension you find yourself longing for, just to break up the monotony of the chatter.

But the action, when it happens, is meaningless.

Graphically sexual scenes seem to serve no more purpose than the disturbingly violent ones – moral threats in a desperate grab for our attention,  titillating and terrifying rather than illuminating.

‘‘What was it about?’’ Counselor asks after his hedonistic friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) finishes describing a bizarre sex act girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) subjected him to.

‘‘I don’t know!’’ Reiner replies.

And neither do we, except that we’re not likely to look at cat fish or car windscreens the same way again.

Ultimately, The Counselor expounds exactly the kind of ‘‘truth’’ we fear deep down in our bones is real, the kind we usually head to the cinema to escape: That life is indecipherable, cruel, meaningless, and then we die.

How successful you think the film is will depend on whether you share or deny it’s brutal central tenet.


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