In the footsteps of his literary classics “No Country For Old Men,” “Blood Meridian” and “The Road,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy teams with director Ridley Scott and makes his screenwriting debut with “The Counselor,” an odd yet fascinating extension to his violent literary oeuvre.
Fresh off his brilliant but brutal performance in “12 Years a Slave,” Michael Fassbender is the Counselor -- his only identification in the film; that impersonal touch an effective McCarthy trademark. When his client Reiner (Javier Bardem) invites him to invest in a drug deal which would transport a shipment from Caracas to Chicago, the naïve Counselor accepts, basking in the prospect of earning gobs of coin with little effort. Life is looking up: he is engaged to the beautiful, innocent and pious Laura (Penélope Cruz), but as circumstances unfold and the shipment of drugs are stolen, the cartel blames the hot-shot lawyer; and just as quickly as his rich new life was built, it comes crashing down.
In typical McCarthy style, “The Counselor” examines the human condition under a magnifying glass, but in his twisted form of anthropology, that magnifying glass burns his characters like ants. There’s no escape from evil in McCarthy’s world. Whether you’re good or bad, means beyond your control will cut you down. Life never seems precious in a McCarthy story. It’s just a meaningless byproduct – something here one second then remorselessly tossed in a landfill the next.
The first half of the film is convoluted and dialogue heavy – but what great dialogue it is! – as McCarthy sets up his ideas like an intricate house of cards then proceeds to knock his house down in the nail-biting final hour. “The Counselor” advances its horror through cynical ideas rather than violence, though in typical McCarthy fashion, there are a few incredibly violent moments, shockingly impersonal and conveyed as orders of business in-between meals and nap times.
Ridley Scott takes the passenger seat as he passes through McCarthy’s country. The visionary director reins in his typically epic style for a more reserved, dialogue-driven study of crime and greed. However, Scott’s visuals in tandem with McCarthy’s script create the best of both worlds: McCarthy’s morose, cynical wit and Scott’s effortlessly slick camera work.
Cameron Diaz steals the show as Reiner’s seductive and dangerous girlfriend. Playing a sleazy, manipulative and maniacal temptress is the highlight of Diaz’s career. She uses her voracious sex appeal and raspy voice to great effect as the biggest player among this nest of hornets. McCarthy’s biting dialogue rolls off her like water on oil. It’s obvious she is reveling in this opportunity.
Brad Pitt expectedly goes for eccentricity when playing smaller roles and this is no exception. He pulls out ever nervous tick imaginable as Westray, the overly-cautious cowboy who brokers the drug deal. Also, rounding out the supporting cast are Rubén Blades, Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo and "Breaking Bad"’s Dean Norris.
A good score by Daniel Pemberton and beautiful photography by Dariusz Wolski complete the package, making McCarthy’s sardonic view of morality, mortality and greed an engrossing, yet disturbing watch, begging for more original screenplays by the Pulitzer winner.
20th Century Fox. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 1 hour and 51 minutes.