REVIEW: The Counselor (Ridley Scott – 2013)

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The great screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) famously turned down adapting The Godfather because he didn’t want to glamorise the Mafia despite praising Mario Puzo’s novel.  Goldman knew that Hollywood would show the drugs, the hits and the corruption, but no producer would allow for child prostitution, human trafficking and other nefarious crimes committed by the group.  Organised crime has been romanticised in cinema, and no matter how atrocious the behaviour of the crooks on screen, we’ve all been entranced by the cool of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, the pop culture meltdown of Pulp Fiction, and the sexual drive of Bonnie and Clyde.  So what happens when the glamorous formula is smashed to bits and the malice of a life of crime is laid bare?  You get The Counselor.  Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy have collaborated on a cynical examination of crime that superbly portrays illegal behaviour in a foul way which is exactly what the characters and the setting deserves.

A wealthy lawyer, only known as The Counselor (Michael Fassbender), decides to invest in drug trafficking based on the advice of a crooked business associate, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz).  Once committed, The Counselor learns from his partner, Westray (Brad Pitt), that the plan has gone sour and he must disappear with his fiancée, Laura (Penelope Cruz), before various crime syndicates exact retribution.

During the opening scene, the Counselor and Laura are in the throes of sexual foreplay, Laura asks in ecstasy, ‘where did you learn that?’  To which the Counselor replies from her thighs, ‘I hang around with a lot of nasty people’.  From this platform McCarthy launches you into the Counselor’s lifestyle, mainly in the form of conversations with the various clients whose crimes he has leveraged into a career as the eternal defendant.  The Counselor is flushed with cash, but tempted to test his intellect against the crooks who are all profiteers, how hard can it be?  Through a series of meetings the Counselor is warned, the consequences are stressed, and he continues to strive to be the smartest guy in the room because, again, how hard can it be?  The Counselor wants to maintain the purity of his life, represented by the beautiful Laura, but he also wants to flirt with organised crime, it’s a fascinating divide to occupy.  McCarthy’s words string with every piece of dialogue and it has a rhythm as if the writer has been watching the films of Quentin Tarantino on repeat.  At times the philosophical felons are a little hard to stomach, and they do start to stack up, but McCarthy doesn’t waste a line of dialogue.  It’s rich examining the nature of crime, relationships, sexuality, human brutality, the hierarchy of society and greed.  There’s a twisted enjoyment that comes from watching the Counselor get consumed by his own foolish attempt at breaking the law which lapses into tragedy.

McCarthy’s dialogue heavy script does a lot of the work but Scott makes sure the tension matches the escalating situation and the violence matches the bleak tone of McCarthy’s words.  Scott also creates an environment full of lavish wealth but it’s always one gold tooth away from revealing the trashy nature of people like Reiner and Malkina (the one with the tooth) who surround themselves with trinkets attained when sports cars, mansions and lavish parties are a bore.  Entertainment is sipping cocktails while watching pet cheetahs hunting, having sex with a Ferrari and drug smuggling.

Fassbender glides through scenery like a corporate snake, keeping his cool, attempting to fool everyone into thinking he’s in control when he’s actually fresh chum in the water. It’s a slick performance and Fassbender expertly gives way to anxiety as the character’s life disintegrates. Bardem appears like a clown with bronzed make-up, wild hair and brightly coloured clothing.  It’s wacky but you can’t help but be drawn into the character by Bardem, and intrigued as to why this glammed up jester is so ridiculously wealthy and successful.  Pitt appears like a world weary mentor to the Counselor, well versed in the ruthlessness of his chosen profession, and I hung off every word the actor spoke.  Diaz has created a monster with Malkina and watching her interact with each character is like witnessing a sheep roam into a lion’s den, it’s captivating and terrifying.  Diaz has a poisonous gaze and you can sense the sociopath at work beneath the piles of oversize gold jewelry, fierce makeup and designer clothing.

McCarthy and Scott have crafted a spectacular feeding frenzy void of any of the gloss or fantasy associated with the criminal underbelly.  The Counselor has plenty of bite and it’s enthralling getting lost in a complete moral wasteland.

Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies