The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s dazzling foray into screenwriting, is very much in the vein of the author’s much-lauded novels. A cousin to No Country for Old Men, occurring in a similar unforgiving southwest, existential banter between either unnamed or titled characters likewise forms the centerpiece and occurs in a language foreign beyond literary fiction. Sporting a poster-friendly cast of Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt, the star power is sure to attract mainstream audiences, but as Pitt’s name lured unsuspecting fans to The Tree of Life, some heavy lifting is likewise expected of the viewer here. Those looking for Dan Brown entertainment will quickly be overwhelmed, but those who can respect McCarthy for the dense writer he is and trust in his guidance are in for a dark, complex treat.
Known simply as “Counselor,” a vague specificity sure to irk many, Fassbender excels at treading the murky moral lines of classic McCarthy protagonists. His attorney is but one of many conflicted-to-sinister people behaving badly, all part of a massive drug deal that can only end worse. In visiting the key players of this operation, the story takes shape via copious warnings, passed down to the Counselor in an assortment of appealing ways. While a diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz) lays out symbolic anecdotes of imperfections and greed, criminals Reiner (Bardem) and Westray (Pitt) deal in more straightforward manners yet with their own seemingly throwaway tangents.
Through these beautifully crafted and delivered exchanges, it’s a pleasure to get caught up in The Counselor’s layered gloom. Outside of some clunky pillow talk (other than some steamy scenes in All the Pretty Horses, romance isn’t exactly McCarthy’s forte) and Diaz’s inconsistent latino accent and general difficulty with the language, it all works. Even in the latter flaw, Diaz still makes for a convincing femme fatale, her enigmatic, sultry Malkina revealing a promising new path for the actress in the villain industry. She’s no match for Bardem and Pitt’s nasty oracles, their side stories of exotic deaths bound to come true, but nonetheless looms large in the uncrowded field of McCarthy women.
Overseeing the proceedings, Ridley Scott doesn’t direct as much as let McCarthy’s words breathe. His clean, sophisticated framing and editing actually feel literary, and in getting out of his own way for the first time in years he delivers his best film since Matchstick Men. In this largely unstylized form, The Counselor emerges as the kind of opus that Savages and other gruesome efforts falsely assumed they were. As McCarthy has consistently proven, it all comes down to the writing, and with his words at the forefront, such a film can only succeed.
Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language.
The Counselor is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.