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Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, Sam Spruell, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic
Crime, Drama, Thriller
When we think Ridley Scott, typically big, lavish spectacles pop up in our minds, which is why The Counselor comes as such an admirable surprise. Much more interested in cautionary talks than fits of physical violence, The Counselor plays mind games with its audience, toying with us intellectually and emotionally. One long con bleeds into a slow climb towards a heady climax of inescapable comeuppances, and we have front row seats to the scramble. If Scott’s former films are a series of taxing somatic workouts, The Counselor is the glistening sweat beading from his forehead once the Western dust has settled. Like a man with an agenda tucked up his sleeve, Scott wields an unblinkingly grim look at the allure of the international drug enterprise and the heartless abandon of cartel justice. As a piece of purely adult entertainment, it’s fearlessly mature and irreverent – the antithesis of studio expectation.
The narrative structure in which this ill-mannered tale of thoughtless vengeance unfolds is laid out like an eight-course table settings. A series of foreboding set-ups piece together a pilgrimage through the stages of greed, wealth, and power, all bonded by prosaic speeches. Various supporting characters all leaning against the post of lawlessness forewarn our hero, a man trying to dip his toe into the drug business, known only as the counselor (Michael Fassbender), of the potential gravity of the situation he’ll be marrying his money and his mouth to. No matter the caution tape they place, telling him to settle with hamburger while he can, the counselor’s taste can’t be satiated with anything less than Kobe beef. As it is, each rehearsed soliloquy is a trap set to spring later in play.
Stepping into a new role as a screenwriter, author Cormac McCarthy is a maestro at establishing these simmering ideas that later erupt in bright bursts of bloodshed. Doling out a class of ironic justice, McCarthy defies civil expectations of “fair,” parsing romanticized ideas of criminal proceedings from the stark actuality of border politics. Standing on some dusty line in the sand and glancing into the sun, there is no line, no limit, no “fair” – only gory messes and dutiful cleanups.
In revealing this harsh reality, McCarthy and Scott know exactly how and when to play their cards. As the adage goes, if you show a gun in the first act, it better go off by the time the credits roll. Throughout The Counselor, McCarthy and Scott show an arsenal of guns and give each a moment in the sun to pop off in the film’s home stretch. Though some may feel taxed by the grueling nature of Scott and McCarthy building this house of cards, the payoff is well worth the wait.
Although McCarthy’s talky script flirts with being overly showy, like the teachers pet showing off, his larger-than-life dialogue works to convert this tale of untold tragedy into a thing of grit-toothed folklore, transporting it like smuggled heroin from the blood-in-the-sand shoot-em-up it might have been to a more uncharted territory. But make no mistake; this is entirely McCarthy’s intention – entirely his rodeo. His fingerprints smother the dialogue, fueling the jet black tone and unrelenting bleakness dripping from the screen. Dangling characters at the end of his puppet strings, using them as mouthpieces for his prosaic tact for conversation, McCarthy’s pithy word play is the star of the show.
To the chagrin of those expecting a guns blazing actioner, The Counselor is only violent in rare fits, so for those going for a bloodbath – beware. When it does shift to the grisly side, it’s more of the full-stop violence of Refn’s films than anything this side of Kill Bill. This is violence as reality; violence as horror; not some glamorized Hollywood spectacle. But the elements that will really haunt you are the ones that slink into the shadows, the ones that are suggested, talked about in whispers, but never shown.
With a screenplay that exchanges high-octane thrills for moments of stressful self-reflection and one-on-one character conversations, Scott keeps the proceedings lively by punctuating them with anecdotal scenes that offer some of the lighter and more engaging moments. Between the gasps, the laughs, and the many talks, there’s not too much room for adrenaline. Much more a mentally stressful film than one that will have your blood pumping in thirsty gushes, all may be quiet on the western front, but it’s not in the minds of those living there.
For a movie that depends so much on the weight of these character chats, a rock solid cast is an absolute necessity. To the benefit of all, the top-tier cast lined up fully rises to the occasion. As the titular counselor, Fassbender continues to flex his thespian muscles, showcasing a spectrum of trade tricks that really makes his performance pop. Although still unconvinced of her true talent, at least in the English language, Penélope Cruz manages to be more than just eye candy and displays a woman who humanizes beauty and love requited. Brad Pitt continues to hit his mark in a solid streak of winning performances, although his Southern drawl may have started to wear a little thin. Cloaked in gaudy clothes and rings the size of dinner party costume jewelry, Cameron Diaz puts in the role of a lifetime. Sadly, that’s a low bar to hit and her performance fails to become the true stunner that it could have been.
As the gold-toothed Malkina, a sexual minx of any sinner’s fantasy, Diaz is on the precipice of something great but never trusts herself enough to take a true risk. In many ways, Malkina is a feminine ode to McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh. Though lacking the brute force of Chigurh, they share comparable devilishly savvy elements. It’s as if they are long separated siblings or lovers who will never be. Ironically, Malkina’s love interest here is played by Chigurh actor Javier Bardem, although his role here is more a thing of kooky-clothed comic relief than the stuff of day terrors. While Chigurh was driven by a distorted cosmic sense of justice, Malkina is ruled by authoritative greed. Too secure in her old image to take a blind leap of faith into the mysterious recesses of something fresh though, Diaz flirts with being great but doesn’t commit. Although I originally had her as a potential Oscar nominee, those chances are all but slashed.
As is becoming a trend for him, Scott throttles the line of brilliance but allows himself to get bogged down in the execution of it. Illustrating his potential for staggeringly intelligent storytelling, there are explosions of excellence scattered throughout The Counselor and a surgeon-steady backbone of thoughtful inspiration, it still gets a little muddled along the way. The wealth of intriguing ideas are there but I’m not convinced that they are fully realized.
Stepped in the tradition of the Old West, The Counselor leaves you wanting to know more, curious if you’d missed anything, and thirsty for another viewing. With the magic of a red pen and another few months spent on pre-production, this could have been an astonishing product, as it is, it’s Prometheus in the desert – brilliance pocked with gaping holes. With a little more polish and another couple edits, this could have been as solid gold as the cap on Cameron Diaz’s canine.