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Review: 'The Counselor' Starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz & Brad Pitt

by Gabe Toro
October 24, 2013 11:39 AM
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The Counselor

Michael Fassbender is sexy like a shark, and sleek as a sports car. His chin is chiseled and hard, forever confident, but his smile is subterranean, hiding secrets we could never guess. As compelling an actor he is, perhaps there’s almost too much depth to this classically pretty face, one that cannot help but come across as predatory, salacious. He’s an unlikely choice to be a wronged man (albeit morally corroded) in the middle of a suspense thriller, and yet here he is, apparently meant to be likable and relatable at the center of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s reptilian “The Counselor.”

The Counselor

Unnamed, and coincidentally deeply underwritten, Fassbender’s Counselor begins the film in bed with Penelope Cruz’ seductive Laura. They look great together, and their bedroom patter is at once spartan and sensual, as per McCarthy’s traditional instincts. The characters in “The Counselor” don’t talk about anything other than talking about what they’re talking about, spinning in circles around the nature of words and meanings, dropping clever bon mots in the middle of playful, and sometimes deadly, verbal chess matches. It’s a wonderfully offbeat beginning, seeing these two beautiful specimens in bed, their hands exploring each other, carefully considering a sort of roleplay as they toy with each other under the sheets. But it is unusual to establish Fassbender’s Counselor as a master of seduction as he makes Laura climax within moments. Then again, it’s pretty easy to showcase a character’s fall from grace once they’re introduced naked in bed with Penelope Cruz.

The Counselor is a lawyer, though the film doesn’t stop to explain for whom exactly or for what. Instead, we skip between his various meetings with shady criminal types, each of whom has involved him in a complex drug transaction (the plot mechanics of which are fairly convoluted). It's a deal that he believes will keep his hands clean enough to marry Laura, who is basically a stock love interest. Primarily, he associates with club owner Reiner, played by Javier Bardem with manga hair and a splotchy tan that suggests an overdone sausage still sizzling over the grill. The two of them have a casual rapport that keeps gravitating back and forth between professional and hyper-familiar, but Reiner’s oversharing, and Bardem’s gregariousness, doesn’t fit with Fassbender’s taciturn sarcasm. Whatever past history these two have is frustratingly vague, and when their relationship is challenged by rising stakes, there’s almost no dramatic weight to what’s supposed to be elevated tension.

The Counselor

The bulk of the film consists of talky meetings where characters wax philosophically about the nature of their actions and greed, crimes and punishment, all suggesting to The Counselor’s face that he’s going to be the one to eventually take the fall. Brad Pitt’s cowboy entrepreneur Westray pretty much draws a diagram suggesting that he’ll ultimately be a victim, not-so-subtly insulting The Counselor’s intelligence to his face. Fassbender’s unfazed countenance suggests a long con of sorts, perhaps hinting that this everyman is going to outfox the competition. Except, bewilderingly, it’s clear early on that he earnestly believes he’ll be able to take his lump sum and retire with his future bride, and Fassbender’s Armani suits and curt conversational style are as far as the everyman as you could get. It’s as if “The Man Of Steel” was ninety minutes of supervillians shit-talking Superman, then casually sticking kryptonite in his face without even pretending it’s a surprise.

The picture’s many long-winded monologues (almost every character has their own speech) touch on pretty basic ideas about death and crime, but the primary topic seems to be about the corruptive properties of desirable women. Cameron Diaz is borderline wolf-like as Reiner’s main squeeze Malkina, sneering her dialogue like a wannabe Ellen Barkin, peppering every conversation with digressions about her unstoppable sex drive. We’ll all look back at this and have our own stance, but right now it’s quite a bit to process a scene where Diaz’ Malkina pulls up her dress, does a split against the windshield of a convertible, and thrusts to climax against the hood as Reiner gawks, bug-eyed. That moment plays out as a comic anecdote delivered by Reiner, and it’s an amusing throwaway moment of sexual insecurities and confusion. It would have landed harder had Diaz (and her stunt double) not been placed in that demeaning position.

The Counselor

Then again, this is Ridley Scott we’re talking, a filmmaker who has distanced himself from subtlety for years. The strength of Scott’s work is compositional clarity, not complexity, and he attacks the dialogue scenes in repetitive lumps, failing to do justice to McCarthy’s chatty prose. The story is straightforward but the conversations are elliptical and meandering, and Scott’s aesthetic is less penetrative and inquisitive, and more Rocco Siffredi Ferrari Commercial. Stripped by genre trappings, his tableaus are tacky and fetishistically untouched. None of the film’s characters seem like they’re familiar with their own surroundings, and there’s no time or place to Scott’s country-hopping locales. It’s sad, but this is the sort of grimy material that his late brother Tony would have nailed, correctly emphasizing the debauched nature of this criminal enterprise and being less reverent, and more playful, with McCarthy’s words, living up to the spirit more than the letter.

There’s also a bit of misfortune that “The Counselor” is largely making a point seen in two recent foreign films, Claire Denis’ upcoming “Bastards” and Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch Of Sin.” Both elegantly weaved narratives that illustrated the harsh reality of how violence trickles through the cracks in society’s class structures, carefully deploying a sense of righteous anger at the inequities of their respective societies. Here, it feels more simplistic and far less righteous, drawing a line between the order of this financial high life and the corruption and arbitrary violence of lower-class Mexico day laborers, a comparison that only comes across as condescending when we’re asked to feel for The Counselor’s white collar plight. The matter in which the “haves” in the film use the “have-nots” for manual labor, and how it’s bound to bite them in the ass, is emphasized by the repeated closeups of Malkina’s pet cheetahs, who hunt freely for her pleasure before being chained up and placed back in custody. That Reiner is oblivious to Malkina’s own plot to usurp his power is clear enough: the fact that she has elaborate cheetah tattoos dotting her back is the sort of touch that suggests Scott not only thinks audiences won’t understand what “The Counselor” is about, but that he feels the need to remind himself as well. [C-]

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  • Ian | November 22, 2013 8:37 AMReply

    It was okay, but ultimately disappointing. McCarthy's literate dialogue looks great on paper, but comes across as heavy-handed on film. Still, an interesting movie.

  • Harry Corbin | November 1, 2013 1:37 AMReply

    Worse movie of the year. Probably the worse movie of the 21st century. Two hours later, the movie is over, the lights come up, and you are still sitting in the movie theater wondering what the hell just happened. The longer you think about it, the more you realize that you just do not know. What you do know, is that you just spent over two hours of your life that will forever be gone - forever. Once you realize that, you race out of the movie theater in search of the closest bar, because you are going to need a few shots and a few beers to numb the pain. Hopefully you'll find a happy hour, so that you can drink more and pay less. At least that will be some consolation for the past 125 minutes that you just wasted. Even if I disliked someone, I would still not recommend that they go see this film. That would be cruel and unusual punishment. I do not dislike anyone that much, but if you do then...

  • Alan B | November 1, 2013 5:22 AM

    Whoa, that sounds rough. I hope you get over the traumatic experience and learn to live again after seeing a film you didn't like.

  • Carissa | October 28, 2013 3:43 AMReply

    "Stripped by genre trappings, his tableaus are tacky and fetishistically untouched." <<< what is that supposed to even mean? Talk about PRETENTIOUS!

  • Penelope | October 27, 2013 6:10 PMReply

  • Glass | October 25, 2013 7:05 PMReply


    Brad Pitt's death scene made me forget how lame the rest of the movie was for 45 seconds. Cameron Diaz's final monologue made me cringe extra hard. Then it cut to black lol

  • Josh | October 25, 2013 6:33 AMReply

    Haven't seen it yet, but damn its hard not to feel disappointed. The cast, writer and trailer all made me believe this was going to be Ridley Scott's best movie since Black Hawk Down.

  • henry | October 24, 2013 6:20 PMReply

    I saw it screened a couple of weeks ago. I really wanted it to like it, but it's just simply not very good.

    What little plot there is makes little sense, and everyone talks and talks, but it always sounds like it may as well be the same character talking, and by the time the end credits roll - you don't really care.

  • MIKE | October 24, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    I apologize for my earlier comments in this thread. I'm an idiot please disregard anything I say.

  • Mr. Pharmore | October 24, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    I read the script and it was masterful. Can't freakin' wait to see this movie! (And, no, I don't mind dark movies either).

  • mike | October 24, 2013 3:01 PM

    there's nothing whatsoever dark or masterful about the script. An idiot can figure out what will happen, shortly after the credit sequence. It's sick to see brutality take place to characters we care nothing about, and for no reason. And it's sick to see the tragedy in Mexico exploited for this cheap, bloated and empty script. But dark? By that definition, anyone can make a dark script. have some characters sit around, saying that life is meaningless and that planes sometimes fall out of the sky and kill people, and then have a plane crash on them. I now see Cormac McCarthy as a woman-fearing religious fanatic, and a clown.

  • Dan | October 24, 2013 1:46 PMReply

    Well Ridley Scott has lost a lot of his skills lately, story sounds dull, trailer was boring, reviews are crap so I am not interested in this anymore.

  • hank | October 24, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    I'd take this review with a grain of salt. This particular reviewer only writes negative reviews.

  • NICE TRY GUY | October 27, 2013 6:14 PM

    Guys, I'd take Hank with a grain of salt because everyone has spoken and this has a 35% rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes.

  • hank | October 25, 2013 3:09 AM

    nice try guy. just look up his critic wire history.

  • NICE TRY GUY | October 25, 2013 1:35 AM

    Googled gabe toro and reviews and this Machete review came up. A B+, fyi.

  • Gabe Toro | October 24, 2013 11:30 PM

    You just did, Hank!

  • hank | October 24, 2013 7:23 PM

    that being said, yeah the movie probably sucks but I would never let this writer tell me so.

  • hank | October 24, 2013 7:22 PM

    I challenge any reader of this site to look back on Gabe Toro's history of posts and prove that he isn't just a negative hack troll who can't put pen to paper unless he's getting off on his own toxic verbiage. have you ever enjoyed anything in your life, Gabe? let alone a film.

  • Nice Try Guy | October 24, 2013 4:56 PM

    Dumbest thing ever said, Hank. I mean, Ok, FOX intern.

  • Gabe Toro | October 24, 2013 2:36 PM


  • dav | October 24, 2013 12:56 PMReply

    The comment that Ridley's deceased brother would have made a better movie out of the script was unnecessary.

  • dav | October 24, 2013 1:33 PM

    Hardly objective, it's not a fact that Tony Scott would have made a better movie, it's completely founded in the writer's own personal judgement. Which is the same reason why I'm same it was unnecessary.

  • j | October 24, 2013 12:58 PM

    Why? The Coens probably could've made a better movie out of it too. What's the difference? It's just an objective observation.

  • Susie | October 24, 2013 12:47 PMReply

    I'm going to see it tomorrow. Even the reviews that are negative haven't discouraged me. I don't mind bleak and nihilistic, I don't need a happy ending, and I don't care about relatable characters, if the film is strong enough. This one sounds as if it might be.

  • mike | October 24, 2013 2:36 PM

    I promise you'll want your money back. I've read the script, it is awful as a three-year-old's handwriting, and much less intelligent

  • ED | October 24, 2013 1:41 PM

    I think that reviewer has never read Kafka.

  • CB | October 24, 2013 1:35 PM

    Word! Some reviewer called it Kafka-esque.

  • Robert De Niro | October 24, 2013 12:35 PMReply

    I'm not giving up hope. Some critics (not a lot, I know) are flat out raving about it. It sounds really, really, really bleak and dark. Combine that with a challenging lyrical screenplay and Greek tragedy-like archetype characterization and you're in trouble. The thing is, the film is likely divisive as hell. Not unlike Killing Them Softly (a masterpiece) or maybe closer to Only God Forgives (also a cinematic masterpiece in my opinion). This seems like the kind of film you have to see before you have any idea about what kind of beast it is. Great review.

  • mike | October 24, 2013 2:46 PM

    I was going to save you some trouble and tell you how bad this film is, based on the god-awful script. And it is awful beyond awful. But if you like God Forgives, and won't complain too much that this protagonist won't be digging through his mother's uterus, and there are no chopstick-torture scenes staged by a two-year-old, you will probably like this misogynistic bucket 'o sh%t.

  • yer | October 24, 2013 12:28 PMReply

    Although obviously not the be all end all, that's really a shame because the screenplay by Cormac is every bit as good as his novels and reminded me a lot of NCFOM. It really featured some beautiful prose and was written more in novel format than anything. I doubted Scott as a director for this piece from the start and although it might seem cliche I thought the Coens would have been a nice fit to work with McCarthy again if they decided to go back into serious mode.

  • yer | October 24, 2013 3:11 PM

    By "work with" I mean using one of his stories. That's all.

  • mike | October 24, 2013 3:06 PM

    you've got your facts very wrong. McCarthy did not work with the Coens, but worked so much with Ridley Scott that Scott admitted during a large press conference that he got quite pissed off at times. the first movie was great, the second awful.

  • RP | October 24, 2013 1:36 PM

    What works on the page brilliantly doesn't always translate well to the screen and that's Scott's fatal flaw as he follows the script to the letter.

    @Susie, Nihilistic and bleak, yep, check. No problem with that either. Problem characters are all pretty stock (Fassbender, as review says, very underwritten) and they all talk in the same McCarthy-like philosophical voice which doesn't work because you want people onscreen to sound and appear like they're not just vessels of the author. You want them to be independent characters -- not just pawns in a morality play.

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