Film review: Ridley Scott directs the grim, stylized thriller, The Counselor

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Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay, The Counselor, hits the big screen in a star-studded, visually glamorous charge through the Tex-Mex drug trade starring Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz. Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay, The Counselor, hits the big screen in a star-studded, visually glamorous charge through the Tex-Mex drug trade starring Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz.

Following a screening of The Counselor, one critic said: “It’s nasty film. Very well made…if that’s what you’re into.”

Judging just from The Counselor’s plot (going into business with Mexican cartels), who wrote it (Cormac McCarthy), and its location (the Texas/Mexico border), there should be no mystery as to what you’re in for.

But there are people who will ignore the rather grim poster and the film’s ominous title (Are happy movies called The Counselor?) and be shocked by the beheadings, bodies stuffed in oil drums, and shoot-outs on the side of the road.

The Counselor is the movie that Savages could have been had Savages not starred Blake Lively and been directed by Oliver Stone. Yes, The Counselor is wholly ice cold, and fits right in with McCarthy’s oeuvre (not including “The Border Trilogy”): heartless, dispassionate, realistic, with a narrative subtext that comments on the roles the characters play as they play those roles.

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t have a name. Why should he? He’s fodder. But he is an attorney and he does want to enter into a smuggling deal with Westray (Brad Pitt) and a nightclub owner, Reiner (Javier Bardem). Westray and Reiner warn The Counselor about what he’s getting into—don’t think for a minute Reiner’s definition of a Mexican bolo tie or Westray’s tale of snuff films won’t come back to haunt them—but The Counselor is unconcerned, even cavalier, about the danger.

There’s also Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s girlfriend, and Laura (Penélope Cruz), The Counselor’s wife (what does she call him?). Neither has much to do, even if one of them holds significant keys to the plot. Malkina, for example, seems as if she’s on the verge of explosive rage at any moment, each word a threat, each glance a warning. Is there any mystery as to what she’s up to? It’s too bad Diaz doesn’t have the gravitas for such a role. Total asshole (Any Given Sunday)? Check. Light comedy (Take your pick)? You bet. Underhanded schemer? Not really. It’s not her intelligence that’s the problem—she’s always the smartest person on screen—it’s her acting abilities.

The two cheetahs in the movie don’t really work into the story, but they’re pretty to look at, and they give Diaz’s underwritten and overperformed character something to discuss with the hapless Goran Visnjic.

There’s also much discussion of how dumb The Counselor and Reiner are (and boy, are they) and when The Counselor’s client (Rosie Perez, who’s excellent in her only scene) inadvertently gets him into hot water, it means nothing to the cartels.

That’s a long way of saying: Sit back, don’t think about it too much, enjoy the slickness of Ridley Scott’s direction and the inevitability of the story—a sort of McCarthy specialty—if you’re given to the aforementioned beheadings, bodies in oil drums, and shootouts. There’s nothing new in The Counselor, and those who don’t appreciate a good dose of nihilism would do well to stay away. But something about it is compelling; maybe that it doesn’t pretend to be more or less than what it is.

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