News Column

REVIEW: 'The Counselor'

October 25, 2013


Oct. 25--A defense attorney can also go by the title of "counselor," as in someone who counsels clients, advising them on the next step to take, from a legal perspective, and how best to avoid punitive action.

Many would say that the best advice on avoiding the sin of greed would be a check of one's own conscience. Some would say that a lawyer would be the last person to ask for advice on the subject of greed.

Greed can take many forms, and in "The Counselor," screenwriter Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott depict money, sex and power as the downfall of many a man (and a few women as well) in a wordy, gory, wildly uneven crime drama.

I love that this story of a lawyer getting into drug-trafficking as a side business is a movie that knows how to pace itself. It knows that when the dialogue is as good as this script frequently offers, you can slow things down and develop characters rather than shoot everything and blow up what's left.

Now if only the plot didn't have so many gaping holes, and if only all actors could deliver great dialogue with the same gravitas. These sins are far worse than the film's beheadings and X-rated sex talk, although some may disagree -- including those who find it to have too many words and too little action.

"Shame" star Michael Fassbender plays the "counselor" in question (the only name he's addressed by), introduced to us in an opening sexual encounter with his new love (Penelope Cruz) that informs us that he's a bad boy and she's a naughty girl -- and they are the most decent people we will meet in the entire film.

There's also Reiner (Javier Bardem, with a spiked hairdo resembling Brian Grazer's shock-do) and Westray (Brad Pitt, cowboying it up in his attire) as two men he's about to go into the megadeal drug-trade with, and who both offer him the same advice: Don't do it.

"You will come to moral decisions that will take you by surprise ... you won't see them coming," cautions Pitt's character, telling the counselor that killings and mutilations are just "part of the business. There's no malice behind it" for people who keep score, like the cartels and Mexican drug lords.

Reiner and Westray also caution him about the methods used to kill those who mess up in such a manner that it foreshadows such deaths later in the film. They also make it clear that they work with shadowy characters who he will never meet -- unless things go wrong.

Scott's film about a man in over his head (we don't know why he needs a big-money "score," but he does) is from start to finish a cautionary tale lacking in a self-edit of McCarthy's writing that the Coen Brothers so beautifully perfected when they filmed the author's "No Country for Old Men."

The red flags of caution are best illustrated early when the counselor proposes marriage. Cruz and Fassbender carry this scene out with such moving gentleness -- their bliss, is that believable -- that all we can think about is all they have to lose.

Their relationship is in stark contrast to the rest of the movie's grisly heart, as fate plays its hand in the drug transaction. The sense of dread developed in the first hour gives way to inevitability in the second half.

Fassbender is by far the best at adapting McCarthy's intent, playing a man with a true sense of innocence and ignorance about the dangers involved, and a morality that is shattered once he realizes his new business partners are far worse monsters than anyone he has defended in court.

Bardem seems disinterested in an odd role, and Pitt looks like he's dressed early for Halloween. And yet it's Cameron Diaz who drags the movie from "don't-miss" to "see it if you like gritty and goofy" status, largely because McCarthy's words coming out of her mouth sound as believable as John Wayne singing the showstopper in a musical.

Not to mention the sex act that her character performs on a convertible, which stops the show like a roadblock in the middle of the movie. Please don't mention it.

The Counselor

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem

Theaters: Cinemark Tulsa, Promenade, Cinemark Broken Arrow, Starworld 20, RiverWalk, Owasso, Eton Square, Sand Springs

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Rated: R (graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)


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