Written by Bryan M Zarpentine
The Counselor is an extraordinary thriller that brings together the skills of so many talented people to create what is an exceptional, moving, and meaningful film. An exceptionally written and poetic screenplay and an expert director join forces with a cast that is intoxicating, irresistible, and accomplished to subtly explore the deeper meanings behind the story they tell. It’s a movie that’s complex and complicated, sexy and sensual, deep and profound, clever and calculating. The Counselor definitely isn’t for everybody, but those that can appreciate a far more subtle kind of thriller that will make you think and capture your attention without over the top action sequences and excessive violence will be very satisfied.
Although the movie is based around the titular character, played by Michael Fassbender, who is never given a name other than “Counselor”, the film proceeds on several fronts. There is the counselor and his relationship with his girlfriend Laura, who is played by Penelope Cruz; the counselor’s relationship with friend and business partner Reiner, who is played by Javier Bardem; Reiner’s relationship with his girlfriend Malkina, who is played by Cameron Diaz, as well as the history the two couples share; the counselor’s relationship with his associate Westray, who is played by Brad Pitt; and finally there is the counselor’s involvement in drug trafficking, and how his involvement in the drug trafficking effects the rest of the main characters. Amidst the main cast of characters, there is also a solitary motorcyclist and a truck from a septic plant that the filmmakers briefly and subtly show on screen, all against the backdrop of the infamous border between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.
The movie begins with the counselor and Laura awakening in the early afternoon hours, lamenting the counselor’s upcoming trip to Amsterdam. The two remain in bed, completely under the covers, making them heard but not seen. Soon their casual chatting turns sexual, making the audience privy to their intimate moment under the covers in a way that’s extremely sexy without being perverse or gratuitous. It’s not the way most audiences would expect the movie to begin, but it quickly establishes how sexually charged The Counselor is, which is showcased early and often throughout the film. This intimate scene is also important in starting to establish the relationship between The Counselor and Laura, as their closeness and devotion to each other as a couple is ultimately intricate to the story.
We meet the other couple in The Counselor in a rather unique way as well, as Reiner and Malkina are seen out in the desert watching their pet cheetahs chase jackrabbits. The two share a drink and have a meaningful conversation that works to establish each of their personalities: Reiner as loose and easy going and Malkina as more serious, cold, and truthful. It also becomes apparent that they aren’t as devoted to one another as the counselor and Laura and their relationship isn’t quite as serious.
We soon find out that the counselor’s trip to Amsterdam was actually for the purpose of finding an engagement ring for Laura. When he returns home, before he can even pop the question, the counselor heads over to Reiner’s extravagant house to speak with him, where get a glimpse into his lavish lifestyle. The two are orchestrating some kind of deal together, but what it is exactly gets hidden in their sophisticated dialogue and their innuendo about the women they’ve been with. It’s here that Reiner warns the counselor that what he’s about to get himself into will take him down a bad road, where he will have no idea what to expect and no way to control what happens. Naturally, the counselor, an obviously confident and determined man, is unfazed by anything Reiner tells him and has no problem moving forward with their plan.
The next step in the process is for the counselor to meet with Westray, who gives a few more details into the drug deal that the counselor is getting himself involved with, but nothing too specific. It’s here we find out that the counselor has some money problems, which were no doubt exacerbated by the expensive engagement ring he purchased, giving him no choice but to make a large sum of movie in a short period of time. Like Reiner, Westray warns the counselor about what he’s getting himself into, but to no avail, as the counselor is intent on moving forward, unsuspecting of any consequences that might arise.
Despite never knowing many of the exact details of the drug trafficking or how the counselor is involved, we slowly and subtly see how the operation is thrown off track and why the counselor is being blamed in a series of subtle and intense scenes, each one more tantalizing than the last. By the time the counselor realizes that he’s in over his head, it’s too late, as everything is out of his hands and he just hopes there is a way to protect himself and the people around him. After significant build up and extensive character development, the movie ends with no real climactic peak, which is a little disappointing to see. However, by doing so, it remains consistent with the rest of the movie, as it doesn’t require any grand theatrics to bring the story to a close, only smart, subtle, and meaningful story telling.
The combination of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott blends together perfectly. After being responsible for the novels that eventually gave us great films like No Country for Old Men and The Road, McCarthy took it upon himself to write the script for The Counselor, with a considerable amount of success for his first effort as a screenwriter. As any good novelist would do, he takes his time in developing his characters, which may make the movie get off to a slow start, but it makes for a stronger script and ultimately pays off in the end. Scott does a great job, especially early in the movie, of using intimate close ups on the characters, which allows for further character development by taking the audience up close and personal with each character. Scott also does well to not rush through the storyline, as McCarthy’s script implies, doing a fine job showing the ancillary characters without taking too much attention away from the main cast.
Also like any great novelist, McCarthy does a brilliant job of showing and not telling. He weaves an intricate story throughout the movie without giving away the details, and by the end the audience will be appreciative of how it all comes together. McCarthy masters symbolism in his writing, making the meaning behind the story more important than giving the audience just another story about drug trafficking gone wrong, and by doing that he showcases many of the same themes his audience has come to expect from his work. With regard to the dialogue, McCarthy delivers some of his best writing, making the script profound and thought provoking while helping make the characters appear intelligent and aware of their place in the world.
If there’s criticism of McCarthy, it’s that he outsmarts the audience too much. The story is a bit too complex and complicating, which can make The Counselor frustrating to watch at times, as the audience is sometimes too busy trying to catch up with the plot that they miss some of the meaningful subtext that McCarthy has implanted in the script. McCarthy also struggles a bit with his depiction of women, as the characters themselves struggle with what to make of the women in the film, just as does McCarthy does in his writing.
Of course, an equal contributor to the writing and directing is the acting, and The Counselor has an exceptional cast providing the acting. As the titular character, Fassbender delivers a quality performance. He may not get a lot of recognition for this role during award season, but he comes through with powerful and emotional scenes when he needs to, showing he’s fully capable of leading such an accomplished cast. Bardem gives arguably the best performance, taking on the role of a zany character with wild hair and ostentatious glasses, and pulling it off with ease. Pitt plays a much smaller role, but he takes full advantage of all the screen time he gets, coming off as clever and likeable.
As for the two leading ladies, Cruz is underutilized considerably, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering McCarthy’s past work, but what she does do she does well, as Cruz can still play sexy and desirable as well as anyone, and those qualities are essential to the actions of Fassbender’s character making sense. Finally, there is Diaz, who on the surface looks a little out of place compared to the rest of the cast. To a certain extent, that’s true, but she does have a rather challenging role, and she does come through when the movie needs her to, and ultimately it’s hard to criticize her too much for being the weakest link in an incredibly talented cast.
Despite the fact that audiences will not universally understand and appreciate its efforts, The Counselor receivers four stars. It’s an atypical thriller that puts something profound and meaningful behind a story we’ve seen plenty of times before. It combines incredible writing, an experienced director, and an outstanding cast to create a cinematic masterpiece that’s full of profound wisdom and clever symbolism. An audience that appreciates great writing, subtle story telling, and strong characters will love it.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Cormac McCarthy
Actors: Michael Fassbender, Penalope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Pros: Incredibly smart and sophisticated script by Cormac McCarthy; exceptional cast that all give quality performances; unique and meaningful story telling that deviates from typical thrillers.
Cons: Not a movie for everybody, as it can be too complex and confusing for its own good; gets off to a slow start in order to develop the main characters; has no climactic peak.