I first saw The Counselor when it was released in 2013. I was attracted to it because of the strong cast (Brad Pitt, Javier Bardhem, Cameron Diaz and Michael Fassbender), a solid director in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy as the screenwriter. Mr. McCarthy has reached esteemed status as a novelist and his screen adaption of No Country for Old Men in 2007 earned him an Academy Award. He has authored a number of original screenplays but none of them were every brought to the screen until The Counselor.
Coming out of the showing I found myself torn about how I felt about the picture. It was quite dark and intense (good things for me), but I felt it best to put it aside for a while. That “a while” continued. Eventually I did something I rarely do; read reviews of the film. This film evoked quite a lot of backlash. In my unscientific survey the comments were about 80% negative as in WTF did I just see, 15% were completely lost on all levels. If you dug for it, about 5% of critics found some merit.
This led me to a decision not to write a review because the polarizing nature of the reaction left me unsure that I could provide a thoughtful contribution. Time has passed and the Unrated and Extended Version has been released on DVD and Streaming services and so I gave it another longer look.
What I saw this time answered several questions that were hanging for me, even still a few are left open. But the the real power and narrative of this film is more clearly revealed in this longer cut and so, here goes.
The Counselor is a deep, dark odyssey that grabs the main character, The Counselor, played with mashed teeth by Michael Fassbender, and drags him into a world he could never imagine on his own. He is a public defender who has some kind of money trouble he wants to cure quickly so he partners with an old friend on a get rich quick drug deal involving the Mexican Cartel. His fiancee, Laura, is played by the beautiful Penelope Cruz. She unfortunately has the worst part in the film, as the Counselor leaves her completely in the dark even when things go very, very bad.
The director, Ridley Scott, has pretty much taken the entirety of Cormac MaCarthy’s script and brought it to the screen. It’s almost word for word, and those words are heavily stylized and heady. The screenplay is written more in the form of a novel than a script, with most of the ink devoted to dialog instead of atmosphere. You can download a copy of it here.
The Counselor has befriended Reiner played by Javier Bardhem. Mr. Bardhem has black spiky hair, big tinted glasses and a flashy wardrobe. He juts into and out of the frame throughout the film spouting words that long for sentences but are very compelling to listen to with his deep voice and accent. He actually doesn’t deliver the lines. It’s more like his mouth is repeating a script he’s read to many partners over the years, right before they commit to being involved. Reiner always gets to the point by way of not getting there.
REINER You pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon and you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. You won’t see it coming at all.
Reiner’s girlfriend is Malkina played by Cameron Diaz who approaches her role with a bleak coldness. Malkina is brilliant, has Reiner wrapped around her finger and is hatching grand designs to get her portion of the take on each deal. You never know what she’s thinking but you know it’s definitely not good.
MALKINA When the world itself is the source of your torment then you are free to exact vengeance upon any least part of it. I think perhaps you would have to be a woman to understand that. And you will never know the depth of your hurt until you are presented with the opportunity for revenge. Only then will you know what you are capable of.
The other key player is Brad Pitt playing Westray. He’s the middleman who brokers two sides (usually more than two sides) so a deal can be done, and charges his fee. Mr. Pitt is the clever street smart one and plays the Texas part with a white Stetson and tailored western suits. As with all Mr. McCormak’s characters he speaks in philosophical riddles that sound confusing, but with a second thought you realize he’s dead on. Here Westray is trying to communicate the seriousness of what they are about to set in motion to the Counselor.
WESTRAY Good word, cautionary. In Scots Law it defines an instrument in which one person stands as surety for another… The problem of course is what happens when the surety turns out to be the more attractive holding.
There are so many people involved in this deal it’s impossible to keep track. You see $20 million attracts a crowd. The meaning of the story lies in the fact that these conversations and events occur in another world. A world far away from the one we live everyday as law biding citizens. Reiner, Malikna and Westray have been inhabiting that world for years. It’s taken their toll on each one in different ways. The Counselor lives in an entirely different world. The world we live in. And thus, that’s why, in my opinion, so many critics had trouble accessing the altered reality that Mr. McCarthy has clearly written and Mr. Scott has so faithfully and rightly preserved in his translation to the screen.
The film propels itself and soon things go wrong, double crosses are set in motion and eventually the violence comes. It’s Coen Brothers style and extremely graphic. The Counselor’s world becomes a free fall into an abyss that we know has a bottom, we just don’t know how far he has to fall until he hits it.
In the end the Counselor gets a one to one conversation with the ultimate Kingpin, Jefe, played by Rubén Blades. Mr. Blades summons all his acting experience which is needed to explain the entire purpose of the story to a hapless and helpless Counselor.
JEFE I would urge you to see the truth of your situation, Counselor. That is my advice. It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago.
…life will not take you back. I have no wish to paint the world in colors more somber than those it wears, but as the world gives way to darkness it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing which you have created, no more, no less… There will be other worlds. Of course. But they are the worlds of other men and your understanding of them was never more than an illusion anyway.
The Counselor is of another world. Not a film world we are used to seeing with the familiar and expected three acts of beginning, middle and end. This world is very different. It is dark and cautionary, but in it are meaningful performances and lessons.
The technical aspects of this film are top shelf all around. Camera, sound and editing come together nicely. The set decoration and production design deserve strong recognition. A new world needed to be created to offer a fitting stage for this unique story. It was handled skillfully.
I enjoyed Daniel Pemberton’s score. It is a layered and well integrated soundtrack. He ignores the choppiness and wild swings in the script and seamlessly stitches the various worlds together.
I cannot recommend this film to the general public. It is best served to stalwarts of cinema who crave a challenge. If you are one of those, then by all means spin it up. The Counselor official movie site relies heavily on an Instagram feed that was used on the run up to the release of the film.
Photos: 20th Century Fox
Dialog excerpts from Cormac McCarthy. The Counselor: A Screenplay (Vintage International Original). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.