The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a man in love, but he is also a man who may have gotten himself in over his head when it comes to some of his more “off the books” business dealings. A lawyer by trade, The Counselor (who is only ever referred to as that) has also teamed up with some interesting partners and gotten himself involved in the business of drug smuggling, and nothing goes as it should.
From its very first moment, The Counselor brings its audience into a world where nothing is shied away from. Director Ridley Scott creates a highly-stylized environment where every detail is accounted for, and this is also a world where the characters are as compelling as their surroundings. The Counselor is a man who can make even the most mundane conversation, whether talking about the clarity of diamonds or the fabric of lingerie, feel vital and important. Unfortunately, Cormac McCarthy’s script fails do the same. Fassbender’s Counselor has an almost rhythmic cadence when he speaks that makes you want to hear more, but McCarthy’s script keeps him from saying anything of real substance or helping to paint a clearer view of who this man truly is.
The film is populated by a bevy of interesting characters from the outrageously dressed, but soft-spoken Renier (Javier Bardem) to the experienced smuggler Westray (Brad Pitt), who tries to advise The Counselor early on to get out of the business while he still can. Both Bardem and Pitt deliver highly entertaining performances with Bardem doling out life advice and recalling past adventures (in vivid detail) while Pitt makes everything Westray does interesting thanks to the character’s pronounced mannerisms.
Renier and Westray seem jovial in their interactions with The Counselor, but there is a palpable fear each embodies, a fear that is never present around Renier’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Malkina is presented as the polar opposite to The Counselor’s fiancée, Laura (Penelope Cruz), a woman of faith, who works as the representation of innocence against Malkina’s bolder style and personality. Cruz plays slightly against type as the innocent rather than the bombshell while Diaz delivers a fearless performance that unfortunately loses its edge as the story progresses.
The Counselor may socialize and be in business with Renier and Westray, but he never seems truly at ease around them, one of the few facts that hint at how he may be more of a fish out of water than he wants people to realize. McCarthy’s narrative begins to toy with the reasoning behind this, but never fully explores it, an unfortunate choice since this aspect of the story felt more interesting and telling than the cat and mouse game the film instead constructs.
The film strives to weave an overly complicated web where every player is connected to one another, but the end game is revealed too soon, causing the third act to become more predictable than suspenseful or meaningful. For all of McCarthy’s pontificating throughout the film about understanding one’s choices and consequences, he never fully explains The Counselor’s reasoning behind the choice that got him into this increasingly violent and destructive situation.
Fassbender delivers a compelling performance as The Counselor – a man who is both confident and crumbling all at once, making it all the more frustrating when we never fully learn about how he came to this point in his life. Scott once again teams up with Director of photography Dariusz Wolski to create a fully realized world of opulent wealth, especially when contrasted against the more gritty elements that go into drug smuggling. Costume designer Janty Yates adds to this experience, thanks to outfits that not only help these characters seem larger than life, but also work to make the clothes an extension of the characters themselves from the rings Westray constantly clicks together to Laura’s almost exclusively lightly toned wardrobe.
Rounding things out is Daniel Pemberton’s diverse score that encompasses almost every type of music you may find in a film from spaghetti Western to techno to soaring orchestrals and even elements of horror. Pemberton’s score works as the sonic representation of how all over the map The Counselor starts to become, but surprisingly, all these different musical elements actually work well together in the visual world Scott has created.
The Counselor succeeds in creating a beautiful world of escapism for viewers, but its insistence on making it seem as though there is more to the story makes things all the more disappointing when the direction the story is inevitably headed is revealed too soon.
The Upside: Visually engaging, interesting characters driven by strong performances; a score that represents almost all musical genres and succeeds in making those various combinations work
The Downside: A narrative that tries to appear smarter than it really is; never explores the more interesting elements and motivations of its central character
On the Side: McCarthy wrote the screenplay for The Counselor as a “break” from the two novels he was also working on at the time.