Movies: "The Counselor" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "The Counselor"
Movies: "The Counselor"

Dark doings south of the border.  Fast cars, guns and snazzy parties.  A big drug deal goes awry and the naive man in the middle finds himself the target of a vengeful and remorseless Mexican drug cartel.

Wait, haven’t we seen this movie before?


Well, not exactly.  Thanks in large part to novelist Cormac McCarthy’s original screenplay (his first), what we have here is the chattiest bunch of criminals since “Pulp Fiction.”  Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie offers a constant undercurrent of dread:  all the players here are justifably scared, except for the mastermind behind the drug theft and the assorted hitmen.


The counselor of the title (he is never named) is played by Michael Fassbender, who is happily living with his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz).  They’re pals with the charismatic and charming Reiner (Javier Bardem), a prosperous Mexican club owner who is hooked up with Malkina, a capricious, high-maintenance Cameron Diaz, who keeps a brace of leopards around the house and once misbehaved flagrantly with Reiner’s car.


As we first encounter these four main characters, we also get quick snippets of as-yet unrelated activities: a truck carrying oil drums full of cocaine hidden under raw sewage, a speeding motorcycle.  Only when the counselor meets with a crafty cocaine cowboy named Westray (Brad Pitt, in one of his best roles ever), do we begin to understand that the counselor is helping bankroll the drug deal.


Westray tries to warn the counselor of what he’s getting into by describing a gruesome cartel murder that was recorded for posterity.  “Have you ever seen a snuff film?” he asks.  When the counselor answers no, Westray goes on: “You might want to think about that the next time you do a line.”


And that is exactly the point of this movie.  It’s a cautionary tale, but beyond that offers little to the moviegoer except for some highly literate dialogue and good performances from a strong cast of supporting players, including the great Bruno Ganz as a Dutch diamond dealer, Rosie Perez as a prison inmate whose son is caught up in the cartel, and Ruben Blades as a philosophical cartel jefe.


The cinematography is by veteran Dariusz Wolski, who last worked with Ridley Scott on “Prometheus,” and the ominous music is by Daniel Pemberton.


I can’t say I liked this movie all that much, although it displays Scott’s usual flair for colorful characters, good scene-setting and violent action.  The main problem is that the imperiled counselor is simply not that likable, motivated as he is by simple greed.  And as the pressure on him ratchets up, his reaction is to fold like a cheap suit.  There are no heroics here.  The film’s strongest suit is its performances, particularly those of Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Rosie Perez, and of course McCarthy's highly literate dialogue.


“The Counselor” is rated R for intense violence and lots of adult shenanigans.  I give it a B-Minus.