Bleak and hopeless, it’s an ice-cold crime drama that examines the reasons and consequences of crime instead of focusing on the crime itself. It’s a stylish cautionary tale about the worst of human behavior driven by greed, lust and hubris; a non-action, action movie where most of the fireworks are in McCarthy’s dialogue. Luckily actors like Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez and Michael Fassbender are there to keep the fuse lit.
In Cormac ‘No Country for Old Men’ McCarthy’s screenwriting debut he tells a gritty story about a greedy lawyer (Fassbender) in over his head after dipping his toe into the narcotics trade with charismatic drug lord Reiner (Bardem) and his sociopath girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz).
When the deal, smuggling carrying 625 kilos of cocaine from Mexico to Chicago, goes south after one “we’ve got a problem” phone call, the Counselor finds his life swirling out of control.
Spiraling around this grim vortex are womanizing middle-man Westray (Pitt), prison inmate Ruth (Rosie Perez) and the counselor’s long-distance girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz).
In “The Counselor” director Ridley Scott mutes his usual high-octane visual sense to focus on the words.
And there’s a lot of them.
Talky to the extreme, the entire movie is built around dialogue that sounds like it flowed from the hardest boiled crime writer out there, which I guess McCarthy is now that Elmore Leonard is working from his celestial typewriter. Catch phrases abound—“You don’t know someone until you know what they want,” for example—but it is wordy. Sometimes brilliantly so, but the pacing, particularly in the first hour, will be thought of as hypnotic by some, slow by others.
Scott takes his time creating tension in every scene, which really begins to pay off in the second hour when the themes of truth or consequences really start to pay off. “If you think you can live in this world and not be part of it, you’re wrong,” the Counselor is told, just after it’s too late to change his fate.
Or the most part the acting is top notch. Fassbender’s shift from confident criminal to a man who lands himself in a world of trouble after doing a good deed gives a nakedly raw performance. As his desperation grows his defenses drop and the weight of what he did in the name of greed crushes him.
Perez and Pitt (who’s in his “Killing Them Softly” mode here) are both fine, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else describing a “gynecological” love scene between a woman and a car with as much strange gusto as Bardem. “You see something like that,” he says, “and it changes you.”
These actors bring the words to life. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Diaz, whose cold-blooded take on the character is too detached to be truly effective.
Like “Killing Them Softly,” another thriller that relied on dialogue and ideas to provide the thrills instead of gunshots and explosions, “The Counselor” will polarize people. Some will find it a head scratcher, others will be drawn into its uncompromising look at life and death, cartel style.
Still others, like me, will be left half in, half out, wishing the film’s virtues—it’s dialogue and ideas—were propped up with just a bit more attention to plot and possibly some warmth. But the chilliness of the story and characters may be McCarthy’s point. Early on Malkina says, “I don’t think truth has a temperature,” which sums McCarthy’s ice cold look at primal, criminal behavior.