Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Cormac McCarthy
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Rosie Perez
Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is not quite what you might expect it to be. Based on the trailers, it is difficult to know exactly what you’re getting into, but as an American moviegoer, the tendency is to expect a certain amount of elaborate action scenes and gratuitous violence in a film about crime. In actuality, there is really very little of either. In fact, The Counselor is surprisingly cerebral and philosophical – perhaps not so surprising considering the story comes from Cormac McCarthy, the writer of No Country For Old Men – and is fairly slow paced. And it’s not even particularly about crime so much as it is a cautionary tale about the nature of greed, how it clouds our judgment and makes us forget those most important to us. And as payment for their greed, the players in this drug-deal-gone-wrong will all pay the ultimate price.
The film follows a nameless Everyman character, a lawyer referred to only as Counselor (Michael Fassbender). At first he seems to have everything he could possibly need – a woman he loves, a lucrative career, international travel – but he is secretly living a life he can’t afford. His friends Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) offer to bring him in on a drug trafficking deal, but caution him strongly against making any rash decisions. They are very clear about what he’d be getting into and vivid about the consequences should anything go wrong. Of course, Counselor declines to heed their warnings, and when things eventually do go wrong he is totally unprepared to handle the fallout.
There’s a lot that’s vague about the drug-trafficking operation and what part Counselor actually plays in the plan. Perhaps he is merely an investor looking to get a return on his money, but the fact that none of the characters have a clear role emphasizes how unimportant the details of the crime are compared to the fact of their involvement and the price they pay for their greed. There are short sequences in which we see the trafficking in progress, but these feel more like entertaining interludes that break up the movie into episodes or chapters.
The real movie is made up of long conversations between characters, usually advising Counselor on some issue or discussing the nature of money, or life, or women, or love – but it all really comes down to greed. These conversations are deliberately paced and almost Pinteresque in their mundane ominousness.
The most ironic thing is how often Counselor finds himself advised by those around him, and how often he ignores their sage and well-meaning counsel. Everyone involved in the scheme seems to be doing all they can to dissuade Counselor from getting involved, and Counselor finds himself constantly surprised by the turn of these conversations. In the end, his greed blinds him to better judgments and he ends up paying the highest price of all when things go south.
While this is definitely not a movie that will appeal to a broad range of tastes, the film itself is directed simply and often times strikingly. Scott has the sense to let the scenes play out, to allow the script and the actors to hold the audience’s attention without having to add showy and distracting camera work. At the same time, there are shots that are simply compelling in their composition and content, specifically any shot including Reiner’s absurd pet leopards, or the devastating reveal at the landfill.
As for the actors, there isn’t a bad or generic performance in the entire movie. Michael Fassbender perfectly conveys the relatability of the Everyman while still amazingly avoids being generic. Counselor is a complex, compelling, and interesting character, and Fassbender hits all the right notes as the emotion crescendos to its tragic climax. Javier Bardem, as always, is a delightful highlight. Reiner is a character that seems to be morbidly addicted to decadence and luxury. Bardem half saunters, half swaggers around in his colorful pants, lurid printed shirts, rose tinted aviators, and spiked hair, lounging languidly, sipping cocktails, showing off his pet leopards. None of it makes him happy, but he can’t live without it either.
And that sentiment pretty much encompasses the whole movie. Counselor puts everything he loves at risk in order to make the money to support his comfortable lifestyle. He doesn’t find out until it’s too late that the money isn’t what mattered, and it wasn’t what made him happy. His friends, who have nothing but their lavish lifestyles to lose, get off easy by comparison.