MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Crime Thriller/Stars: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Natalie Dormer, Édgar Ramírez, Bruno Ganz, Rubén Blades, Goran Višnjić, Velibor Topić, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, John Leguizamo, Dean Norris, Richard Cabral, Sam Spruell, Alex Hafner, Andrea Deck/ Runtime: 117 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that the name of one Cormac McCarthy is one that might only be recognized right off the bat by either those with a love for literature, those who know their film credits, or both, but it cannot be denied that this highly regarded author has helped bring several wonderful films to fruition through his work as a writer. Indeed amongst the novels McCarthy has penned there are at least 3 which managed to make for riveting cinematic entertainment: All the Pretty Horses in 2000, The Road in 2009, and perhaps the most noteworthy, No Country for Old Men in 2007 respectively. Indeed, as seen especially in the latter 2, what makes McCarthy a great writer to adapt is how he presents a bleak and foreboding world that is occupied by world weary protagonists who have done what they needed to do to make their way in the world, but who still are having to deal with external conflicts or psychological comeuppance coming from mistakes they made in the past whilst also reflecting on the bleak and calamitous state of the world we live in. To that end, the slice of cinematic pie from 2013 that is The Counselor is particularly noteworthy to McCarthy fans. That is because this film’s spine is the very first original screenplay McCarthy has ever helmed and it, much like his novels, deals with a protagonist whose morals are constantly in question and whose choices ultimately have many consequences they both could never have seen coming and which affect both them and the people closest to them as well. It was this moral ambiguity to say nothing of the fact that the film is overflowing with colorful language that is in equal measure lyrical, but also perfectly suited to the character that it is speaking at any given time that may have resulted in the divisive pair of review camps this movie has accrued since its initial release. One of these camps says this movie is terrible and one of the worst that Ridley Scott has ever thought himself fit to helm (clearly these people don’t remember the movie he made about Christopher Columbus. I mean I’m not saying that one was bad, but I am saying even I wouldn’t sail the ocean blue on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria to see that movie again) At the same time however, there was also another smaller but no less influential group spearheaded by, amongst others, Scott Foundas from Variety who really took the opportunity to challenge people for not trying to comprehend the fact that not only did this film seem almost more like a filmed novel in many respects, but that it was also ambiguous on purpose.
Well in all fairness to Mr. Foundas, he is a wonderful writer and I have always enjoyed reading his work, but I didn’t need to read his review to know these things about this distinct slice of cinematic pie. Rather, all I had to do was simply pay 5 dollars at a movie theater in Kerrville over 8 years ago (as of this writing) and watch this movie in order to comprehend what it is trying to pass along to you, the viewer. That of course being the fact that it doesn’t ultimately matter if you embrace this slice of cinematic pie or toss it on the cinematic bonfire since The Counselor is a film that a group of clearly talented individuals actually thought on how to make it the best film possible for a movie going audience. Put another way dear reader, this movie is assuredly and thankfully not a weakly made entry in the thriller genre that is simply assembled from parts we have all seen a million times and then thrust in our faces as something worth seeing. Instead, this slice of cinematic pie is a significantly more bleak, melancholic, and quite contemplative film, much in the same vein as a film like George Clooney’s The American for example, that throws for a significant loop several typical clichés in what would be seen more often in a character analysis than in a typical film for this genre of movie magic. Indeed yes it isn’t a perfect slice of cinematic pie by any stretch, but the gripping work done by its cast to say nothing of the beautifully nihilistic story and dialogue being given to us by McCarthy mixed with Ridley Scott’s distinct flair behind the camera are enough to help give us a slice of cinematic pie that might be confusing, but is one that ultimately you should still definitely give at least a chance to see if it is for you.
The plot is as follows: Taking place by and large in that dangerous and perilous corner of the world that is the United States-Mexico border by way of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, our film starts its riveting cautionary fable off by introducing us to a man known only as “Counselor” (and in case you’re wondering: no he never does have his name revealed). This is a man who, we are able to ascertain through the handful of clues given to us by the film, is a lawyer of some skill and renown, but who lately has found himself falling on hard times financially to some degree and who is being tempted to finally take part in a venture with some cartel members similar to the kind a lot of his clients engage in. A problematic situation really because not only is this guy totally clueless as to the kind of people he is dealing with, but also because he has just asked his lady love Laura to marry him. Suffice it to say then that, despite the friendly warnings of business partner Reiner and world weary middle man Westray, our “intrepid hero” decides to go through with the deal in the hopes of giving Laura and himself the best life possible. However, when a freakish set of coincidences begin unfurling and the cartel feel that he is to blame, we begin to see the worst kind of game begin to emerge for our hero. One where trust and loyalty amongst friends is no more guaranteed than you being able to walk away from the nightmare which is quickly unfolding all around you in one piece let alone with your life and the lives of those you love completely intact….
Right off the bat I should just come right out and let you know something very important about this slice of cinematic pie dear reader: THIS FILM IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. I say that because this slice of cinematic pie is one that goes as dark as possible, is by no means a “happy” movie, and has a cast of characters that, with one possible exception, are some of the scummiest possible people you could ever think to spend time with. Yet in all fairness not only are there plenty of movies where the cast of characters are all varying degrees of scum (Hateful Eight, Reservoir Dogs anyone?), but I think that this is exactly the way Scott and McCarthy wanted it to be. I say that because this slice of cinematic pie is supposed to be more of an ominous fable about how one man’s greed and arrogance can ultimately lead to his downfall. Yes there are parts of this movie as well as within the narrative that might not make sense, but that ambiguity is on purpose because the narrative matters, but nowhere near as much as the characters involved and the decisions that they make which come back to them in a variety of ways. To that end, I think Ridley Scott does do a decent job at making a movie that, whilst there are a few of his distinct touches here and there, really does give off the vibe of Ridley trying to give the world one more film from his equally as talented brother Tony who had tragically passed away a year prior. No it’s not perfect, but like a lot of Tony’s other films it is entertaining.
Now more than anything else I think it is safe to say that if the fairly well done work accomplished by McCarthy on the page or with Scott at the helm is not enough to convince you then I think the work done by the cast in this just might. Again, as stated in the previous paragraph, by and large the majority of the characters in this aren’t even remotely innocent in any sense of the word, but that doesn’t mean the work done to bring each of them to life is any less electric. This starts with Michael Fassbender in the titular role and although most people just see him simply as “Magneto Junior”, I am someone who knows that when given the right material this man is one heck of an actor (Shame, 12 Years a Slave definitely, Inglorious Basterds, and the 2016 Assassins Creed movie….joking on that last one). Suffice it to say that this movie is one where he is actually doing a good job. Indeed I know his character in this movie is unbearably naïve, smug and cocky to the hilt, and a little bit of a dick if we’re being honest. Yet not only does he seem to really love his fiancée thus leading to one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the whole movie, but as the film goes on and this man is put through the absolute wringer and begins seeing his insulated life completely fall apart you do actually start to feel a little bit bad for him even though at the same time you recognize that he really has no one to blame for his predicament since he did do this to himself for all intents and purposes. Now surrounding Fassbender is a quartet of supporting performances and they’re all wonderfully done as well. Yes Penelope Cruz as Laura is a bit one note and has nowhere near as much screen time as she deserves, but she does do a good job of operating as perhaps the one person in this film who still possesses something of a moral compass. That and she and Fassbender do have decent chemistry in the scenes they do have together. We also get dynamic work here from Javier Bardem, who clearly got hairstyling lessons from Brian Grazer before making this, who is a wonderful mix of sly, comedic, paranoid, and just all over the place in his role of Reiner and Brad Pitt, who went to see Tom Petty for HIS hairstyling tips, who brings a delightful nonchalant world weariness and seen it all/done it all stoicism to the role of Westray. That and if I’m being honest Pitt has one heck of an exit from this film. Just saying. Out of everyone though, perhaps the biggest surprise performance-wise is Cameron Diaz as Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina. Indeed the best way I can describe this woman is she is the hybrid of Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct and Amy Dunne from Gone Girl we never knew we needed. Indeed Diaz from the first moment we see her not only exudes an iciness, but also a subtle menace and visceral ruthlessness about it her that by the time the movie is over you will not forget (to say nothing of her…..fascination with certain kinds of cars.)
All in all I think it is safe to say that the 2013 slice of cinematic pie that is The Counselor is one which makes the rather bold and ballsy choice to not give up all the particular secrets it has up its sleeves with any degree of ease whatsoever. In fact, I will go even further and say that this might just be a slice of cinematic pie that is part of that distinct group which will require you to sit down and view this at least one time in order to have the whole picture fully fleshed out for you due to just how darn intentionally vague this whole movie is supposed to be in many respects from beginning to end. With that in mind, it should also be noted that thanks to some subtle yet quite potent work from this slice of cinematic pie’s clearly talented cast (with particular regard to a wonderfully twisted and vile performance from Diaz) to say nothing of a colorful yet also riveting and quite gripping screenplay courtesy of iconic author Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor is one that is, if you are the kind of viewer who can get behind it, a truly arresting, brutal, and quite visceral slice of cinematic pie in just about every single respect. No this movie is not a typical film from any angle which you choose to exam it from, but in the eyes of this reviewer that is more of a positive than you might initially suspect. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Counselor “2013” a solid 3.5 out of 5.