You're supposed to either love or hate The Counselor, so I'm not sure what it says about me that I found it to be middling. Considering that it was written by acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott and featured one of the most star-laden casts of any 2013 release (Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz), it's a disappointment.
You put that collection of talent together and it's fair to expect something triumphant -- something The Counselor isn't close to being.
But it is not without its merits either. Not that it has much competition in this department (mainly the wretched Savages), but it is the best attempt to date to come to terms with the part Americans have played in the escalating violence -- the carnage, really -- that drug smugglers just over the border of Mexico have engaged in in recent years. (Traffic is surely a better film, but really predates the brutal bloodshed I'm thinking of in this case.)
Fassbender, known only as Counselor throughout the film, is the vessel for this examination. As his moniker implies, he is not a hardened criminal, but rather a wealthy El Paso lawyer looking to deepen his pockets following his engagement to Laura (Cruz). So, the Counselor gets entangled with the gaudily dressed Reiner (Bardem) and his cowboy-hat-wearing associate Westray (Pitt), the seedy characters who can help him execute a one-time drug deal that carries considerable risk but also a potential reward of millions.
Fassbender's character ignores ominous warnings from Reiner and Westray about the mostly nameless and faceless characters with whom he is doing business, and there is almost no doubt that those warnings will soon become reality. It's just a matter of who will end up dead, when they will meet their end and who will end up with grisly, motorized decapitation device described by Bardem earlier in the film around their neck.
Constructing a character like Fassbender's as the focal point of this story seems intentional and quite inspired. This isn't the brown-ish face often associated with the drug trade in the collective imagination of white America. He is a playboy with no apparent motivation other than greed for getting involved in cocaine smuggling. He oozes hubris and ignorance, a deadly combination in this instance, but one that in most cases is not and yet is still very common on this side of the border. McCarthy and Scott don't quite stick the landing, but I couldn't help thinking of the recent Slate article that sensationally proclaimed that "buying cocaine is like donating to the Nazi party" anyway.
Fassbender is the personification of America's willful ignorance about the many products, including drugs, that it consumes (often at much cheaper prices than the rest of world). If only we saw the true cost of those cheap goods more often.
If The Counselor doesn't work for you, it could be because of the weak performance from Diaz or the pointlessness of Cruz's character, who is only really around so that extra pain can be inflicted upon her fiance. But it will most likely be because so much of the plot is shrouded in vague dialogue.
If so, then you've been McCarthy'd. I suspect having just finished one of his great works, Blood Meridian, made for an easier viewing experience. The lack of perfect plot clarity is kind of a hallmark of his. McCarthy's voice and distinct style shone throughout, and, more importantly, it was fresh and familiar to me. That won't be the case for most people watching it for the first time, and so must be accounted for in any final reckoning.