Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Rated: R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
There is a very small group of films which I think are brilliant but never particularly want to see again. “The Counselor” is in that group. It’s not a flawless film, but the performances and dialog are incredible, and while it’s a cautionary tale at heart, it’s never preachy. It’s also one of the best portrayals of someone completely and utterly ruining his own and several other people’s lives I have ever seen.
Michael Fassbender plays the titular role with a brittle confidence that is astonishing. The counselor (we never hear his name) has what seems like an amazing life: beautiful fiance Laura (Penélope Cruz), beautiful home, beautiful car. It, like his confidence, is a façade – he has become so desperate for money that he’s allowed Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) to include him in a drug smuggling deal. This would likely be a dull movie if that went smoothly, so of course it doesn’t. The shipment goes missing. The cartel in Colombia is not amused.
Fassbender delivers a performance of impressive depth. The counselor’s life started unraveling before the events of the film, but one suspects that even before he was trying to keep up appearances that he was living a bit of a lie. When he tells Laura, “life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting,” it rings more true than pretty much everything else he says.
As the men who enable the counselor to ruin himself, Bardem and Pitt are brilliant. Bardem has a difficult role but handles it easily, including one of the strangest, yet best, monologues I’ve seen on film. He shows us a man who is tempted into doing things he knows aren’t wise by his love of beauty and opulence. He knows his lover Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is dangerous, but he adores her so he stays involved with her. He knows his lavish lifestyle puts him at risk, but enjoys it too much to give it up.
Pitt’s Westray is almost Reiner’s opposite, a quiet man who would probably be just as at home in a monastery as in a nightclub. Reiner wears a lot of cowboy clothing, but he’s no cowboy and this is far from his first rodeo. Where Reiner plunges in after the things he wants, not caring about the risk, Westray sees the danger and has made a calculated decision about how to deal with it. His final scene in the film is the thing art school papers are made of.
The one sour note in all of this is that the only two female characters, Malkina and Laura, fall easily and comfortably into the good girl/bad girl dichotomy that has become so tiresome in so much of Western creative output for the last few centuries. It’s done so carefully and in some ways unconventionally that it’s hard to hold it against director Ridley Scott or writer Cormack McCarthy (who adapted his novel for the screen).
Even that, however, seems more like an inclusion in a diamond than a real flaw. A gem dealer early in the film explains that without inclusions, diamonds have no real color – a flawless one is pure light, which lacks interest. When he shows the counselor a particular diamond he’s particularly fond of, he points out the tiny inclusion, walks the counselor through the ratings, and calls it a “cautionary diamond.” Neither the counselor nor the audience are entirely sure what he means by that, but by the end of the film, it was clear that “The Counselor” is itself a cautionary diamond. Beautiful, in part because of its flaw, and a warning.
“The Counselor” is not a film for the faint of heart – what violence it contains is graphic and visceral, but what’s really disturbing is the emotional violence. Fassbender’s last scene is excruciating for anyone with empathy. While it contains almost no sex or nudity, it does contain two sequences of women enjoying themselves sexually, which tends to lead to much higher ratings than R. If you love beautifully crafted films and don’t mind the violence, do not miss it.