Early in The Counselor, a diamond dealer shows a prospective groom how the stones are graded.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
This is a cynical business, the dealer (Bruno Ganz) says. We are only seeking imperfection.
And so it goes with the buyer (Michael Fassbender), a high-end lawyer embarking not only into marriage but also into drug trafficking. He learns it doesnt take much for a cartel to perceive imperfection.
Consequently, The Counselor spirals into a bleak, uncompromising and sometimes difficult drama about those who profit most from the drug trade but who typically dont live long enough to enjoy it.
The film begins with a couple murmuring in bed, underneath the sheets like Halloween ghosts. We cant see who they are, even though the womans sultry Spanish voice unmistakably belongs to Penélope Cruz. But for once, Fassbender (Shame) effectively conceals his Irish accent with a generic American drawl. We only recognize the actor once the camera sneaks below and joins the pillow-talking pair.
Her name is Laura, but we never learn his. He is only referred to as Counselor, a mystery man.
This Counselor has partnered with client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a free-wheeler who spends his days throwing lavish pool parties or taking his pet cheetahs into the Texas desert to hunt small game. This fascinates Reiners newish girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), whose probing conversations and cheetah-patterned tattoos mark her as someone worth keeping an eye on.
Westray (a greasy Brad Pitt) is helping the men orchestrate a $20 million smuggling job out of neighboring Juarez, Mexico. He dispenses enough middle-management advice about the profession to fill his 10-gallon cowboy hat.
If you think you can live in this world and not be a part of it, youre wrong, he warns the Counselor.
But thats just the foundation of this grim thriller, which starts slow and deliberate before ramping up the violence. The well-staged action scenes are really just punctuation marks. The film is fundamentally a series of ellipses intimate, weird, train-of-thought conversations between characters who range from seedy to ruthless.
The Counselor is the first collaboration between three-time Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, writing his first screenplay. Scott has proven comfortable at full-scale shootouts (Black Hawk Down) or leisurely discussions filmed with creeping tracking shots and lingering close-ups (Alien).
As with his novel No Country for Old Men, adapted into a best-picture winner, McCarthy introduces a Texan hero whose brief foray into opportunism sets off a chain of events that unleashes an inescapable evil.
Their tandem talents may be an acquired taste for those seeking a generic crime thriller. The Counselor is quite episodic during its setup, presenting characters whose purpose seems murky until the main story takes shape. Yet some of the pictures best moments come in these auxiliary scenes, such as the Counselors visitation with a convicted murderer (a ruthless Rosie Perez).
Or a flashback with Reiner recounting a hallucinatory sex act on a convertible that altered his entire perspective. (Bardems couldnt be more different from his lunatic hit man in No Country for Old Men, other than they both have awful haircuts.)
The cast is stellar with the exception of Diaz. While she certainly looks the part of an ice-cold trophy girlfriend, she doesnt always pull off McCarthys calculated dialogue. Her delivery is not terrible, just not nearly as organic as Bardem, Pitt and the others. (Angelina Jolie was originally cast in the Diaz role before bowing out.)
The Counselor becomes a rough viewing experience. Challenging, even. If nothing else, it features one of the most remarkable movie deaths ever staged. Its among the many images that arent easily dismissed.
During one of the films chatty moments between the Counselor and Westray, the cowboy brings up a snuff film purportedly made by his Mexican associates. He explains that the very act of watching it makes you an accessory to murder. Thats the same trap the Counselor falls into repeatedly in this gruesome drama: Guilt just comes with the job.