There is no movie out in theaters this year more cynical than Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” (Rated R; 117 Min.).
It’s a tale of good and evil, and the choices that can quickly turn one to the other. It is also brutal in its interpretation of what happens when we fall. Not a single character gets an easy out here.
But writer Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”) has a way of making his cynicism beautiful. The dialogue-heavy “Counselor” holds its punches for a few knockout scenes of violence while letting the characters push the minimal plot forward through poetic speeches that few screenwriters have the ability to write.
The plot involves the title character, never given a proper name but played by Ridley Scott’s new favorite action star Michael Fassbender. The counselor is neck deep in a new business venture with drug trafficker Reiner, (Javier Bardem) and ends up dealing with the very nature of evil after a series of events lead the venture to go horribly wrong. Just like in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” all of the characters are connected and one little spark has ramifications for everyone.
“The Counselor” would not exist without McCarthy’s script, i.e. no one else could write this movie, so it’s important to understand he’s more concerned with meditation on his character’s actions rather than plot and action. Scott has assembled quite a lineup of actors to take on these formidable roles. Beyond Fassbender and Bardem, Cameron Diaz plays Malkina, Reiner’s girlfriend who has bought into his lifestyle and may know more than she should about his business ventures. Penelope Cruz is underused as Fassbender’s fiancé Laura, but Brad Pitt shines in his few scenes as Westray, another cog in Reiner’s system.
Unfortunately, McCarthy’s passion for dialogue is also his undoing. The plot serves as a weak prop for the performances, and holes shine through. It is easy to think you’ve missed something in such a weighty movie, but there are quite a few dots that are never connected. If McCarthy had been just as concerned with his frame as he was with his character’s moralities, the plot would have been much stronger. Luckily there is enough going on here that even if you only mildly grasp the plot the movie never grows boring.
Scott does okay as director, but McCarthy’s work needs a director with
a distinct style like his own. The Coen Brothers brought their dark humor to “No Country for Old Men,” a movie where Bardem gets a much better chance to shine than he does here. Attempting to gel a McCarthy screenplay into a wide-appeal action movie is an awkward combination to begin with, so the result is destined to feel like a push-and-pull: does “The Counselor” want to be a mainstream drug drama? Or something more sinister? Audiences expecting a shoot-em-up thriller are looking in the wrong place.
For those willing to take the plunge, director of photography Dariusz Wolski — who worked with Scott on “Prometheus” and Jerry Bruckheimer on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies — does a great job of making the audience feel like there’s no way out of the parable. An opening sequence featuring Fassbender and Cruz rolling around under the sheets traps the camera in with the two actors, letting the audience know that we are entangled with these two and it’s too late to go back.
“The Counselor” may not be typical Friday night fare, but the impressive cast delivers their fire-and-brimstone lines with enough passion that one cannot help but be taken in. While the movie is not without its flaws, it builds to become an elaborate puzzle worth deconstructing.