Sitting at 35% on Rotten Tomatoes The Counselor has taken a lot of flak from critics for being too talky and overly dark, but the film is certainly not indecipherable, it just asks its audience to go places, places that audiences may not be willing to delve into.
Sometimes in cinema, we must go to those places.
Cormac McCarthy’s last adaptation came full-steam into theaters taking critics by storm and translating that success into multiple Academy Award wins. This collaboration with Ridley Scott is more lurid and pulpy than that film, but no less distinguished or deserving of accolades than 2007’s No Country for Old Men.
A lawyer (Michael Fassbender), referred to only as Counselor, decides to insert himself into a $20,000,000 drug deal. He does so on the promise that it is a one-time thing to provide the life of comfort he wants to give to his fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz). He has seen the lavish lifestyle that Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz) lead and he wants a piece of that for himself. The fast cars, the exotic pets, the parties, everything.
In his meetings with the very eccentric Reiner and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), the Counselor convinces himself that he is aware of all the possible outcomes and he is prepared for all the risks. Reiner chides him lightly, warning him off the path he is treading, but nothing sinks in. Westray knows better, this Counselor will not heed any advice. Even warnings of a contraption that uses a motor to close a loop of unbreakable wire around the victim’s neck doesn’t scare Counselor off.
The counselor hides his vulnerability behind a facade of wit, but that wall is going to be torn down when chance intervenes. A lot can go wrong when millions of dollars of drugs are ferried from Mexico to the United States and when it does, the fate of the Counselor seals that of his associates as well.
McCarthy is no stranger to brutality, as evidenced by the string of graphic murders in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, yet characters are dispatched with unimaginable horror. Yet the film is not without its moments of comedy, though said moments are quite black.
What begins as a display of excess dissolves into a cautionary tale that provides the audience much to chew on. Claiming that dealing drugs is bad is hardly anything new, but the philosophy of the film goes way beyond that. The Counselor tries in vain to negotiate his way out of this destructive path, but no truths can stop what’s coming. Fate has been driving down this road built on decisions made long before the audience came on the scene. He has brought this Faustian evil on himself.
The five leads all perform their duties in exemplary fashion, not a surprise given the depth afforded to the actors. Michael Fassbender could have fallen behind his much more flamboyant cast mates, but he reels it in as the dramatic focus of a spiral into the deepest circles of hell. Javier Bardem, despite sporting another bizarre haircut, is much more human here than his character in No Country for Old Men. No where is that clearer than the scene where Reiner battles his thoughts trying to explain to the counselor that some things just can’t be unseen. Brad Pitt plays off his natural cool as the suave cowboy with a plan for every scenario, but Cameron Diaz pulls a wild card on everyone, leering on as cheetahs kill jackrabbits with sexual thrill, grinding on expensive cars in absolute monster-mode. This may just be the performance Diaz is remembered for.
There’s a pure path of creativity at work in The Counselor. Ridley Scott utilizes his several decades behind the camera to illuminate the script given to him and parlay that into something stunning. The Counselor plays with resisting our natural desire to structure things and resisting that urge is partially the point of the film: Life waits for no man. Once the world you have created starts spinning, it can’t be stopped.
This isn’t a thriller, this is far more than that: it’s a journey to a very dark, very real place on Earth.
Before you write it off, give it a watch yourself.