The Counselor

Movie Information

The Story: A lawyer gets involved in a drug deal that goes bad — very bad. The Lowdown: A strikingly original collaboration between director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy has proven that personal filmmaking can still exist in mainstream film. What this sharply divisive film does not prove is that there's much market for it. Unrelentingly grim (with doses of bitter humor), layered, disturbing and, yes, flawed, but I found it compelling.
Genre: Neo-noir Crime Thriller
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt
Rated: R

Nearly every criticism — and there has been no shortage of it — that’s been lobbed at Ridley Scott’s The Counselor probably factors into the reasons I kind of liked it. In fact, I kind of liked it a lot. No, I’m not a huge Ridley Scott fan and my familiarity with the works of writer Cormac McCarthy pretty much begins and ends with the Coens’ film, No Country for Old Men (2007). So I’m not biased by any sense of loyalty to its creators. Scott strikes me as a visual stylist who is not much of a dramatist, and McCarthy just doesn’t deal in subjects that appeal to me very much. Together, however, they’ve made a film that fascinates me in its sheer eccentricity, and eccentricity is not much seen in mainstream film these days — at least not this extravagantly. Whether or not that makes The Counselor a good film, I’m not entirely sure, but at least it left me keenly aware that I’d seen something different that hadn’t been focus-grouped into the blandly generic.

The Counselor has an almost “take it or leave it” quality, which might be off-putting to some. (It’s natural to want to feel that the filmmakers want you to like their work, and here it feels an incidental concern at best.) Similarly, the film isn’t interested in telling its story in anything that can be called a straightforward fashion. Some have even called it incoherent, but I had no trouble following it — once I understood that the story itself had started before the movie and we’d just been dropped into it. The truth is that the basic story is very simple. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) goes into a criminal alliance with nightclub owner Reiner (Javier Bardem with outrageous clothes and even more outrageous hair) in a drug deal with a Mexican drug cartel. The exact nature of involvement is never explained and it really doesn’t matter. Both Reiner and an enigmatic associate named Westray (Brad Pitt as a kind of well-tailored cowboy) go out of their way to make it clear that the price will be death — or worse — if anything goes wrong. If the nameless Counselor realized he was in a Cormac McCarthy story, he’d know that it not only will go wrong, but that it will inevitably go spectacularly wrong. Since he doesn’t know this, greed wins out, sealing his fate.

That’s really all the plot there is. The bulk of the story — and its parade of characters — is concerned with the mechanics of how things will go wrong and the question of who is manipulating things and what will happen to who. (And, notably, who will fall victim to a device called a bolo that works as a motor-driven garrote of thin wire that slowly decapitates its victim. It’s described early on, so you know it’s going to make an appearance.) Apart from those already named, the film’s other two principal characters are The Counselor’s virtuous fiancee, Laura (Penélope Cruz), and Reiner’s definitely nonvirtuous girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Laura is as close as the film gets to a normal character in the world of duplicity and corruption in which it exists. Malkina, on the other hand, is right at home here — to the degree that Reiner is himself afraid of her. (A bizarre story Reiner relates — with flashbacks — about Malkina having a sexual encounter with the windshield of his Ferrari — “Seeing a thing like that changes you” — puts this into disturbing, yet humorous, perspective.) The rest of the characters — name actors Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo — are mostly window-dressing oddities, given brief, but memorable bits.

All of this is carried out with a combination of precision and scads of McCarthy-esque philosophical dialogue that would seem improbable in real life, yet strangely belongs in this movie. People in The Counselor talk a great deal, but they rarely communicate directly. A great many seem to find the artificiality of this dialogue a problem, and you may, too. For me, it fits the film (and I really wish real people were this well-spoken). But be warned, if you decide to try the film, that it is one merciless movie, and often a very bloody one (it contains two decapitations — one of which is extremely gory). Still, I think it’s worth seeing — and it’s a lot better than its reception suggests. Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language.

Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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