MOVIE REVIEW

‘The Counselor’: Bleak and murky, but memorable | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-10-24T18:49:00Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

Early in “The Counselor,” a diamond dealer shows a prospective groom how the stones are graded.

“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 doesn’t 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 don’t live long enough to enjoy it.

The film begins with a couple murmuring in bed, underneath the sheets like Halloween ghosts. We can’t see who they are, even though the woman’s 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 Reiner’s 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, you’re wrong,” he warns the Counselor.

But that’s 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 picture’s best moments come in these auxiliary scenes, such as the Counselor’s 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. (Bardem’s couldn’t 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 doesn’t always pull off McCarthy’s 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. It’s among the many images that aren’t easily dismissed.

During one of the film’s 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. That’s the same trap the Counselor falls into repeatedly in this gruesome drama: Guilt just comes with the job.

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