You know you’re watching a film noir when the main character is presented with two choices and never picks the right one. Of course, if people in movies did the right thing, made the correct, morally responsible decisions and acted like good, upstanding citizens, we wouldn’t have a movie. In Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” Michael Fassbender stars in the title role of a well connected lawyer who is about to participate in a highly illegal operation. Referred to affectionately and ironically by everyone he encounters as “counselor,” Fassbender’s shark in a suit contemplates partaking in a drug-running scheme, a first-time bid at high crime and an attempt to raise funds for a club he co-owns. He’s also deeply in love with Laura, played so delightfully by Penelope Cruz, the audience fully grasps how the weight of his bad decision hinders his healthy relationship.
What makes all this moral contemplation stand out from other crime thrillers of this sort is how we’re introduced only gradually into the Counselor’s world. Scott may be the visual genius who gives the film a stunning, neo-western look but he’s also completely in service of the screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, his first ever penned exclusively for the big screen. For the first forty minutes, there’s no big action sequences, just talk. We learn who each character is, how they tie into the Counselor’s life and listen as they philosophize their status on the social ladder. There’s also a great deal of advice given to the Counselor by Reiner, his immediate partner in crime (Javier Bardem, giving a performance as colorful as his attire, which is saying a lot) and Westray, a wealthy but lawless cowboy (Brad Pitt, in a great character turn). McCarthy’s dialog dances from the lips of his actors, twisting playfully and providing many quotable lines you’ll want to remember. This novelistic approach to storytelling is unusual for most American films, let alone one from Scott, though, this being a McCarthy story, you know things won’t go down easy. As soon as things unravel and the Counselor’s foolish belief in an air-tight plan goes awry, he braces for the worst.
This is one of Scott’s “smaller” films, a drama that emphasizes character and moral code over spectacle. I admittedly loved Scott’s last two films, the divisive but breathtaking “Prometheus” and the underappreciated “Robin Hood.” Here, as in “Matchstick Men” and “Thelma & Louise,” Scott tells a familiar and very American story but creates a visual landscape that is scarier, more vividly beautiful and larger than life. We’re drawn into the contrasting worlds presented, of the Counselor’s safe haven of slick privilege and that of the low class drug runners. Once the two worlds intersect, the results are as brutal as you’d expect, only more so, as Scott and McCarthy neither hold back nor give in to audience expectations.
Fassbender’s character is almost always a picture of controlled composure, which makes his largely internalized performance seem less impressive than it truly is. Bardem’s wily turn isn’t on the same level as his iconic portrait of evil in the McCarthy-authored “No Country For Old Men,” but, as he did in “Skyfall,” he excels at playing intriguing, kooky and hard to define figures. Pitt’s effortless charisma makes him the best at delivering McCarthy’s stylish lines and grave insights, while Cameron Diaz, playing Bardem’s main squeeze, taps into the icy demeanor that made her “Vanilla Sky” character so frightening.
Not everything comes together neatly or coherently in McCarthy’s overly ambitious story. Yet, Scott keeps this riveting, even as his grim, dialog-driven film is an acquired taste. The wrap-up will divide most audiences, as will the emphasis on talk over action. Still, when the blood starts to flow, it delivers shock and heartbreaking revelations. Fans of “Breaking Bad” will like this the most, as will lovers of crime stories that provide a cautionary angle in addition to the pleasure of living vicariously through morally tainted criminals. Let it serve as a warning, as well as a recommendation, that the film’s title could easily have been The Wages of Sin.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly