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With: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Édgar Ramírez, Dean Norris, Rubén Blades, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Natalie Dormer, Toby Kebbel, Emma Rigby
Written by: Cormac McCarthy
Directed by: Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating: R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
Running Time: 117
Date: 10/25/2013

The Counselor (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Guilty as Sin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I missed the press screening of Ridley Scott's The Counselor due to a screening conflict with Bad Grandpa (of all things), so I missed out on all the early buzz. It was not long before I started hearing very negative things about it, such as: It's dumb. It has no thrills or suspense. It's slow and boring. It doesn't live up to expectations.

I have to be careful now, because my reaction could be obstinately opposing the general consensus, just for the sake of it. Or it could be that I actually enjoyed the movie on its own merits. But either way, I did enjoy it.

We should take a look at that word, "expectations," which is the biggest booby trap in movie reviewing, and every critic, no matter how good or how smart, has fallen prey to it. The trap is this: If a movie doesn't live up to what we hoped for it, or expected of it, then it has failed, regardless of what the movie actually is.

Consider Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which was not well received upon its release in 1982, but is now widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time. (The forty-fifth greatest movie of all time, according to They Shoot Pictures.) Audiences at the time had seen Harrison Ford in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and probably expected something similarly exciting and heroic. Blade Runner is not a heroic or exciting movie. The hero is kind of ineffectual and pathetic, but he learns some hard lessons and learns a bit about the world he lives in, and it's fascinating.

So here's a question: even though The Counselor is about drug running and dirty deals and threats and murders, what if it's not supposed to be exciting? What if it's more about the world that these characters inhabit? What if it's about something learned and something experienced rather than entertainment and thrills?

Plus, since when has Cormac McCarthy -- whose first produced original screenplay this is -- ever written anything that was fast-paced and entertaining and thrilling? His stories are about choices, regrets, violence, survival, and thoughtful discussions about such things.

OK. So the plot involves an unnamed counselor (Michael Fassbender), who is very much in love with his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz). So much so, he buys her a huge diamond ring and proposes to her. Every so often, he meets with his buddy, the spiky-haired Reiner (Javier Bardem). Reiner has a crazy, sexy girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) whom he loves but isn't sure he can trust. She's the type that has sex with his car. Not in his car... with his car.

The counselor and Reiner are working together to open a new nightclub. They're also working on becoming involved in a shady drug deal, wherein drugs are transported via sewage trucks. Another mysterious figure, Westray (Brad Pitt), who dresses in cowboy gear, is also involved. Unfortunately, there's a coincidence. A former client of the counselor's, Ruth (Rosie Perez), asks him to help get her son out of jail on a speeding charge. (He was going 206 miles per hour on a motorcycle.) The counselor does this, but without realizing that the son is part of the drug network. And everything slides downhill from there.

Sometimes things happen with some vague menace that never returns, plotwise, but at least serve to heighten the movie's atmosphere. In one scene, a former client of the counselor's approaches him and Laura at a restaurant and makes things uncomfortable for a moment. The counselor apologizes to Laura, saying, "It comes with the territory." She frowns, and that's it. In a standard Hollywood screenplay, the man is supposed to come back, but this is not a standard Hollywood screenplay, and he never does. However, the threat remains.

Moreover, McCarthy's screenplay includes tons of striking and peculiar imagery, starting with the gleaming, intricately designed apartments and houses of the heroes. These characters make a lot of money and they live luxuriously. Reiner even has a bookshelf full of books about fancy houses. He and Malkina keep a pair of leopards with jewel-studded collars. They swill mixed drinks all day. They drive amazing cars. Juxtapose this with the images of sewage and drugs, or maybe a dead body in a barrel, the other side of this world.

Characters talk a lot about women, life, sex, money, death, chance, fate, choices, etc. Nobody talks about the weather or what's on the bestseller list. They're all philosophers, except maybe the counselor himself. He's the only one that seems just a little behind everyone else, maybe a bit like the Deckard character from Blade Runner. Critics are claiming this as a mistake or a failing of the movie, but I think it's the point. The counselor has the most to learn from this setup, and learn he does.

Scott's direction is as inspired as it ever has been, making use of wide, empty spaces or ornate decoration as well as he did in Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise. After more than a decade of trying to make camera-shaking, brain-dead action hits, he seems to have returned to his proper place as an arthouse director. (Maybe this is another misconception on the part of the critics... reading The Counselor as a mainstream movie?)

I'd like to take a moment to talk about some of the little surprises in the movie, such as Michael Fassbinder standing opposite a poster of Steve McQueen, the actor, not the director with whom Fassbinder has worked three times (and who can be seen in McQueen's new 12 Years a Slave). I also laughed when I saw Dean Norris, the DEA agent from "Breaking Bad," as a drug buyer.

Many great and recognizable actors turn up in just one or two scenes: Bruno Ganz is a diamond dealer, with lots to say about the philosophy of diamonds. Édgar Ramírez is a priest, Rubén Blades is Jefe, a Mexican kingpin who puts down his pool cue, sips some brandy, and then enjoys a nice coffee with two sugars while speaking poetry and philosophy to a suffering counselor on the phone. Goran Visnjic is a banker, and John Leguizamo is a drug dealer. Their individual scenes are good enough that any actor would sign up.

As I write all this, it's Friday, October 25. The movie has just opened. I don't expect it to make much money this weekend, and I don't expect any of my colleagues to change their minds. Maybe I'm wrong and they're right. Maybe this is a worthless failure of an entertainment with nothing else to offer. But maybe 20 or 30 years from now... who knows? Maybe, like Blade Runner, this will be considered one of Scott's more ambitious, fascinating, and challenging works.

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