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.
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 Men, The 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 Deadwood, The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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