This 2013 film was written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starred Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt and Bruno Ganz. How could The Counselor possibly miss? And yet the critics thought it did just that, and badly, citing the pretentious dialogue, the campy feel and the dull story that seems to be aiming for something but never finds it.
It’s not the first time in the last year that I have watched a different film than the critics. Sure, the film is way out there, with scenes and dialogue that feel completely unreal and over-the-top. But so was Django Unchained, and the critics loved that one. I appreciated The Counselor much more than Django Unchained, not least because, from the very first minute, it had a theme and characters consistent with where it was going and with the message it aimed to convey (yes, there was one), and because it left the worst of its depravity off screen (though there was certainly enough onscreen as well).
Yes, The Counselor is a very dark and disturbing film, featuring a plot that revolves around the worst things human beings are capable of doing to each other, and I would recommend it only to those viewers who have no trouble watching that other film involving McCarthy and Bardem: No Country for Old Men. If you are one of those viewers and are looking for a unique intelligent artsy thriller that’s full of thoughtful dialogue instead of action, you might want to check it out. But do not expect to enjoy it.
That first minute I mentioned introduces us to the counselor (an unnamed lawyer played brilliantly by Fassbender) and the woman he loves (Laura, played by Penelope Cruz) as they’re having fun in their bedroom in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. The next scene is in Amsterdam, where a diamond dealer (Ganz) sells the counselor a diamond for an engagement ring and waxes philosophical, something the counselor will encounter repeatedly from various men he meets in the film.
The counselor next visits Reiner (Bardem), who offers him an opportunity to get in on a great investment. But when he goes to the middleman, Westray (Pitt), he is reminded that this investment involves a Mexican drug cartel and that the actions we take always have consequences. This is the clear message of The Counselor, which suggests that we are all complicit in the evils of this world, so we’d better be prepared to suffer the consequences.
The Counselor drives this message home with endless foreshadowing and storytelling. This is not a film offering surprising plot twists, at least not for the viewer (the men mentioned above have no idea that the driving force behind the film’s plot is neither a man nor a Mexican drug cartel but Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz)) . No, The Counselor wants you to know exactly what is going to happen, so that you can experience the relentless tension and the horror of it long before the worst happens (and we know the worst is going to happen).
This makes The Counselor a very difficult film to sit through, so it’s not surprising that the average viewer had no more use for the film than the critics did, but for me it worked, and it felt exactly like what one might hope for in a McCarthy/Scott film. Did the film have to be so dark and twisted to get its message across? I don’t know.
Did I mention the awesome cinematography? I am giving The Counselor a surprising ***+. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a cult classic one day. My mug is up, but beware of the dark liquid inside.