If you just so happen to venture into Ridley Scott's The Counselor not realizing that it is a film penned by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy or, even worse, you have no idea what such a thing even means, then you may not have a complete grasp on exactly what you should be expecting from the experience of watching the film.
You may be expecting a standard issue action/thriller set in the world of the drug trade. If this is all that you want from the film, you may or may not be satisfied but you are most assuredly setting your sites too low.
Cormac McCarthy is incapable of penning anything that resembles "standard issue," a fact that has as its supporting argument such films as The Road and the damn near perfect No Country for Old Men.
The Counselor isn't a perfect film, but it's an imperfectly glorious film that is flawlessly written, impeccably acted and impossible to forget even when director Ridley Scott, doing his best work since Blackhawk Down, is occasionally given to unnecessary excesses and disjointed stylish flourishes.
The Counselor in question is portrayed by the increasingly popular Michael Fassbender as a stunningly successful attorney with a lovely girlfriend (Penelope Cruz) for whom stunning success may simply not be enough. He greatly admires the stratospheric successes of his friends Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the latter prone to such excesses as cheetahs as pets and as markings on her seemingly flawlessly body that practically exclaim the territory as that of a ruthless predator.
The Counselor remains nameless, a fact that is not irrelevant. He is having what appears to be a bit of financial trouble, though the origin and size of this trouble is not known nor apparent given his ability to plant a 3.9- carat diamond ring on his loved one's finger. To solve his financial problem, he wants in on a drug deal involving three 55-gallon drums of cocaine valued at $20 million.
Despite warnings by Reiner and another colleague, Westray (Brad Pitt), to not get involved, Fassbender's counselor can't resist the seemingly easy temptation of this mega score and so he does become involved.
The action that follows isn't necessarily jarring in its innovation, but it is relentlessly involving and surprisingly and very darkly humorous in presentation. The violence intensifies almost to the point of soul numbing absurdity, but it's apparent that there's a purpose to it all even if that purpose is sometimes hard to accept.
Already met with wildly varying critical reviews, The Counselor has been called everything from "derivative nonsense" (Time's Mary Pols) to "a complete miscalculation" (San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle) to a "dumb, gory, grab-bag of cliches." (Portland Oregonian's Jeff Baker).
They are right.
And they are wrong.
The Counselor is relentlessly true to the mutual visions of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy, and together they create a world that looks, from the outside, like one of derivative nonsense and ridiculous cliches. It's a world that is so dark and brutal and unfeeling that one nearly laughs out of necessity to survive, while any introduction of true feeling would feel out of place in a world where everything seems based within the moment and without genuine purpose other than out of arrogance or greed or conceit or simply possibility.
The film's performances are uniformly strong, with Javier Bardem managing to once again create an unforgettable character out of what could have so easily been a cookie cutter bad guy. Bardem's Reiner is unforgettable almost precisely because he is so forgettable while Diaz's Malkina oozes authenticity even as she exudes almost ridiculous cliches. Fassbender, who is not quite a household name and doesn't quite have a household face, makes you believe in his love for his girlfriend as much as you believe in the blindness of his foolish arrogance. Brad Pitt, having quite the year, again lands himself in a smaller yet unforgettable role that helps to tie everything together with stories that will only begin to make sense as everything truly starts to unfold.
The Counselor will not be a film for everyone. It may prove to some to be as absurd as the story it is telling but, in my opinion, that is very much the point and both Scott and McCarthy work together beautifully to make it all come to life. With both intimacy and universality, The Counselor tells a story even when it is apparent that no one is actually listening.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic