‘The Counselor’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated November 9th, 2014 at 6:22 pm,

The Counselor Review starring Michael Fassbender Brad Pitt Cameron Diaz Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz The Counselor Review

The Counselor is a novelist-turned-screenwriter experiment likely to be met with mixed reception between the get it and don’t get it types in the audience.

Michael Fassbender stars in The Counselor as the titular protagonist, a prominent lawyer who makes the life-turning decision to enter the underworld of high-end drug trafficking. Motivated by greed and dreams of supporting his new wife (Penélope Cruz), The Counselor seeks advice from criminal advisors like pragmatic middle-man, Westray (Brad Pitt) and lavish optimist, Reiner (Javier Bardem).

Both men warn The Counselor that a simple one-time tour through their world is not something most men can do without pain and violence; however, The Counselor feels he know the angles well enough to play the game – which is why it is so much more devastating when the deal goes wrong, and the pack of wolves come running, hungry for their pound of flesh.

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in The Counselor The Counselor Review

Brad Pitt in ‘The Counselor’

Although directed by Ridley Scott (Prometheus), the thing that really makes The Counselor worthy of notice is the fact that it is the first screenwriting effort of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer  – and arguably one of the greatest living American authors – Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old MenThe Road). And while the film offers McCarthy’s signature mix of philosophy, blunt-force prose and graphic violence, its artistry may be at odds with the crime-thriller expectations that some audience members will inevitably bring to the theater.

Like David Milch’s conflation of literary prose and genre convention with HBO’s western drama series DeadwoodThe Counselor is like a teleplay of top-notch (at times even Shakespearian) writing being exchanged by a fun cast of actors who are wholly committed to the stylized world they are inhabiting. A more direct comparison might be last year’s adaptation of Killing Them Softly (also starring Pitt), which likewise used a hard-boiled mob drama as a platform for heady philosophical dialogues about larger life issues. The only differences between Killing Them Softly and The Counselor? A) McCarthy’s writing is much more graceful, powerful, witty and insightful, and B) Ridley Scott’s direction is much more nuanced, lavish and skillful. In short: The Counselor is a much more potent and powerful blend.

Ridley Scott Directs Cormac McCarthys The Counselor 2013 The Counselor Review

Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz in ‘The Counselor’

In terms of telling a cinematic story through visual symbolism, metaphor and mis-en-scene composition, The Counselor stands as one of Scott’s better works of the last few years – which have been mostly dotted with superficial effects bonanzas (Prometheus) or films shot in his customary drab and washed-out palette (American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood – all solid if uninspired works). Even in its simplicity (just scenes of conversations between two people), something about The Counselor feels very lively and vivid, with the sort of hidden meanings contained in each frame that makes actually watching the film a worthwhile proposition.

There is an expectation of violence and action that comes with a movie like this, and while the action is regulated to a few choice sequences, violence in the world of McCarthy – whether in a film like the Cohen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men adaptation or this movie – is employed in swift, brutal measure – and the violence done in The Counselor (whether committed on or offscreen) certainly makes an impact. Furthermore, the “entertainment” that usually comes with violent imagery in films is also stripped away, giving real weight to the events that can – and do – occur in this bloody tale of betrayal and retribution.

Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in The Counselor 20131 The Counselor Review

Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in ‘The Counselor’

One big worry hanging over the film was that McCarthy’s status as a lion wordsmith on the novel page would somehow either be diluted in adaptation to mainstream film, or would fail to connect with the average moviegoer who isn’t necessarily into literary novels and razor-sharp prose. The writer’s skill certainly wasn’t dulled to create this screenplay, though its ability to connect to moviegoers is something that must be examined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the viewer. McCarthy, as stated, does not hold back when it comes to the sophistication of his language, so it requires a somewhat educated and attentive ear to fully ingest the meaning of each scene of dialogue – but they are all pretty brilliant when broken down fully. The movie delves into topics such as morality, love, ambition, savagery – and a LOT about the nature of gender – and still manages to make that lecture fit within the frame of a tight crime-caper thriller (albeit a hyper-real, highly-stylized take on the genre).

The biggest surprise about the script is the amount of gallows humor that McCarthy manages to work in: both high-brow laughs (“hemlock” allusions) and low-brow gut-busters (the soon-to-be-infamous “catfish” car sequence or “Jesus in Mexico” joke). Whether playing it smart and witty or raunchy and crass, The Counselor is quite entertaining in its employment of verbal and/or visual humor – a nice juxtaposition to the twisted and gruesome moments of violence that often directly precede, follow, or occur in unison with the jokes.

Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender in The Counselor The Counselor Review

The cast is all around solid, with Michael Fassbender serving as the perfect protagonist for this sordid tale. Fassbender masters at holding a slightly deranged look in those cold blue eyes chiseled into his leading man face, and the movie’s narrative makes great use of that idea (the slightly dirty, buttoned-down pretty boy). As the nexus of the film, Fassbender delivers a wicked good performance, punctuated by real gut-wrenching moments of drastic emotion.

Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt are both good in their respective roles as The Counselor’s criminal advisors, with Bardem grabbing more of the limelight, by the end. Pitt seems to be doing a slightly more outlandish turn on his already eccentric cool-guy crook from the Ocean’s 11 series (just add cowboy hat and boots); Bardem, on the other hand, is a far departure from his No Country villain Anton Chigur, turning eccentric dealer Reiner into one of the film’s standout elements. Like with Skyfall, Bardem manages to steal big moments with nothing but a well-delivered monologue, facial tick and/or sly smile. He continues to surprise with his range.

Cameron Diaz as Malkina in The Counselor The Counselor Review

Of the two major female leads, Cameron Diaz gets the fun of playing an over-the-top femme fatale (down to a pirate-gold tooth and cheetah body tattoo), while Penélope Cruz is given painfully little to do as The Counselor’s naive wife. Diaz (despite showing some age) does alright for herself and earns admiration for all her wickedness – but Cruz’ role could’ve been filled by any number of lower-caliber performers and we might have hardly noticed the difference, given how thin the part is.

In the end, The Counselor is a novelist-turned-screenwriter experiment likely to be met with mixed reception between the “get it” and “don’t get it” types in the audience. It’s not an action thrill ride, it iS a “talkie” for sure – only a “talkie” written by one of the best scribes alive, which has inspired some of the better filmmaking in a director who has arguably been resting on laurels for more than a little while.

If Quentin Tarantino had been a book geek instead of a film geek, he might’ve created a movie like this – a sure sign that McCarthy has a future in Hollywood (should he want one).

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The Counselor is now in theaters. It is 117 minutes long and is Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language.

Follow me on Twitter @ppnkof

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5
(Very Good)

Follow Kofi Outlaw on Twitter @ppnkof
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  1. every movie gets a 3.5

    • And yet, when looking at our review section right now, this is the ONLY movie that has a 3.5 score. Weird…

      • hahahahaha ^^

  2. Whoops!! Hey SR its spelled “review” not “reivew” but you’ve prbly already fixed it by now. Just a heads up!

  3. While 3.5 stars is very good, with the director, cast and writer, I figured this would be an Oscar contender. But hey, at least it’s a solid movie!

  4. Did Kofi recently move to Boston? lol “Fassbender delivers a wicked good performance, punctuated by real gut-wrenching moments of drastic emotion.”

  5. Well now I’m all confused, Rotten Tomatoes is telling me the general consensus is that this is a bad film but the reviewers I actually trust are saying it’s pretty good. Now I have to decide between going with the crowd or standing with the smarter minority. It’s just like highschool again.

    • You can trust the Outlaw on this one.

      Rotten Tomatoes’ “general consensus” is
      anything but these days. Unfortunately.

      • I agree I barely look at RT anymore, the king is dead long live Kofi and SR in general!

  6. Glad Kofi gave this a solid review. Love Ridley, McCarthy and the whole cast, but was very disappointed by the general reactions to the film. Now I’ll have to go see it.

  7. i want to see this

    when i saw the preview awhile back i thought that was Robert Downey ha

  8. Great analysis on McCarthy’s writing translating to the screen, Kofi.
    That is the main curiosity for me and this is the kind of film that
    plays better at home with the ability to replay any scenes.
    Your 3.5 review means I will slot this in down the road.

  9. Comparing this to Quentin Tarantino, which means I probably wouldn’t like this. Thanks for that little detail, so I can just ignore the star rating.

    • I am not a fan of Tarantino’s work either.

      Ridley can’t veer too far from being Ridley though.

      • @Robert Palmar

        It’s just when people make comparisons to QT, that usually means they are saying the dialog is “smart and witty” which when I watch movies like that, it’s not “smart and witty” it’s just “unnatural and unrealistic” dialog… I consider myself an intelligent person, but it’s not like with every sentence I have something witty to respond to it ready at a moment’s notice… I kind of hate movies like that.

        • I agree, Ken. Such dialogue calls attention to itself.
          Which is the last thing that should happen in a film.

          Some of the best written language in a novel has
          to be rewritten for film inorder to avoid just that.
          For this movie, that is the real curiosity for me.

  10. 3.5 is just meh on my scale. Maybe will watch, but certainly not in theater.

  11. Wow, the reviewers I trust absolutely love it, yet the majority seem to think it`s a bad film…I guess The Counselor will be proof of why I trust the reviewers I trust, hopefully.

  12. I know some people who saw this last night and based on the responses back I am worried. They told me although Fassbender did a great job, everything else falls apart. I talked to my brother who went last night as well since he’s a huge Ridley/Fassbender fan and he felt disappointed. I had some hopes for this movie but judging by what the “general public” is saying is that it’s an okay movie but nothing that couldn’t wait for the DVD. Not good, ugh

  13. Is it just me or does Bardem’s hair and glasses look like an homage to Clarence in True Romance? Which was directed by Ridley’s late brother Scott.

    • I always figured Bardem was playing Raoul Silva’s even more flamboyant brother.

  14. Even though Mr. Scott has been hit or miss for me lately there’s just no way I can resist seeing this this weekend.
    I’m only human so of course the few reviews I’ve read that say this may just be a middle of the road crime thriller have brought on a bit of concern but a good review here combined with the cast and a screenplay written by McCarthy overrides any of that concern.

  15. While I haven’t seen the movie, Kofi’s review really makes me want to see it now. I would stand behind a ScreenRant review/rating any day of the week compared to RottenTomatoes. You da man Kofi!!!

  16. Ridley Scott, nuff said.

  17. I watched this movie last night with my son and he’s only 16, and he loved this movie and the dialogue. I thought it was well done and acted, some very funny & sharp lines from Fassbender and Pitt. Gotta love Bardems character as well

  18. Thanks for this review. This movie is terrific. The dialogue is not stilted; it is merely more intelligent than most. The film also assumes that you can tolerate not knowing where, exactly, each employee of the cartel fits in the organizational chart, and focus instead on the spiraling human consequences of a deal gone wrong. It is beautifully visualized, as one would expect from Ridley Scott, and all the actors are at the top of their game. Ignore the naysayers on this one.

    • Could not agree with you (and this review) more, Susan. The plethora of negative reviews suggest most people are falling into the ‘don’t get it’ camp, but I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed this film.

      • Please, enlighten me. What didn’t I get?

        The movie for me was 2 1/2. The story was rather weak and without the stars this movie probably is direct to DVD.

        Reminded me of Runner Runner but with better acting. Too many good movies this fall and counselor falls below the bar.

        **Mild Spoiler**

        What a way for Pitt to go though, nasty, haha.

  19. Man Ridley has lost his touch IMO. Every single movie he made after Matchstick men has been a huge disappointment to me. I haven’t seen this film yet, (I will) but if I was to guess I would say its going to let me down. So I’ll wait for a DVD release. Currently under 40% on RT.

  20. I expected this to be a contender for the best movie of the year. At the same time, everyone has their opinions and preferences and that’s what makes the box office and critics opinions irrelevant. Critics are just people paid to give reviews on things. Anyhow, it does seem to me like it did disappoint. I can’t really say I’m surprised. Cormac McCarthy is a very good writer and I expected more from him. Ridley Scott, is a tad overrated and hit and miss. Michael Fassbender is overhyped. Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt are good but not as great as everyone makes them out to be. I hope American Hustle kills it this year.

  21. This is the smartest review of this movie I’ve seen. I don’t trust the “consensus” at Rotten Tomatoes on this one. Thanks!

  22. I loved this movie. Although some of the dialogue seems out of place for a movie it is still beautifully written and worth listening to. I agree that Penelope Cruz did not have a whole lot to do but I feel that she did wonderful work with what she was given. I realy felt for her character as all this madness happened around her and to her. This is pure Cormac McCarthy through and through and certainly worth seeing in the theater.

  23. I agree with Kofi on this one – it was very good. It was a nice break from the summer blockbusters. I find the rich dialogue really entertaining and the “realism” of the violence sobering.

  24. A couple of thoughts here; 1) Put an end to the drug war, it’s futile 2) Seek retribution on all those who have profited from the drug war – hunt them down like Nazi war criminals.

    Oh, and I also thought it was a good movie.

  25. Towards the end of the movie there is a rather long talk, advice given to the counselor about how making decisions changes your world. Who gave that? Is it written anywhere?

  26. Just saw it on HBO and liked it enough to recommend to my true movie fans. Watched it with my wife who hated it and asked questions thru the entire movie. My wife also continues to ask “can anyone understand Stewie- on family Guy”.

  27. The worse movie ever!!!!!

  28. What happened to Penelope, could see her body being dumped in the dumpsters but what happened to her before that , what does that dvd sent to fassbender imply ??