(by Dustin Putman
"The extinction of reality is a concept no resignation can encompass," longtime cartel member Jefe (Rubén Blades) matter-of-factly tells the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), his poetic words filled with chilling portent. In Jefe's unsavory, potentially treacherous career, he has seen plenty of people facing certain doom, and the Counselor is the latest pawn who has gotten mixed up with the wrong people and is currently facing the bitter music. The screenwriting debut of celebrated author Cormac McCarthy (whose novels have already seen successful film adaptations with 2007's "No Country for Old Men" and 2009's "The Road"), "The Counselor" has been understandably difficult to market, its sordid, intricately snarled premise not so simple to boil down into a 30-second television ad or even a two-and-a-half-minute theatrical trailer. It will be up to director Ridley Scott (2012's "Prometheus") and his starry A-list cast, then, to draw viewers in. What they'll find is a bold, scrupulously devised, rivetingly unpredictable thriller, as savagely provocative as an operatic Shakespearean tragedy and as hair-raising as a particularly effective horror picture. Article continues below
The Counselor must have a proper name, but no one in his life seems to use it. An El Paso-based attorney with a wandering eye toward achieving a quick financial windfall as he prepares to marry his sweet, traditional girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), he has involved himself in a U.S.-Mexico drug trafficking scheme with his exorbitantly wealthy friend, Reiner (Javier Bardem)—the two of them also partnering on the opening of an area nightclub. His eggs spread into too many baskets, so to speak, he finds his plans for a quick, easy, in-and-out transaction erratically dashed when the wrong person is killed and the shady figures on the back end are suddenly out $20-million. Now, no one is safe in the Counselor's life—not Reiner, not Reiner's coolly self-assured girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), not middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), and, most unfortunately, not the entirely innocent Laura.
In an early scene, Reiner and Malkina lounge about, intensely watching through binoculars as their pet cheetah chases down a frantic jackrabbit across the plains. Soon, they will be participants in a strikingly similar life-or-death situation. Calculated and haunting, slashing with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel and the ruthlessness of a sociopathic killer, "The Counselor" disturbs immensely while rising with indomitable stakes. Director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy prove to be a heavenly match made in hell, the former's perceptive, cinematic attention to his mise en scène and the latter's talent for vividly unsparing tales with characters developed through their richly penned interactions meshing with ill-boding control. McCarthy is intentionally sketchy in what information he reveals, preferring metaphor and suggestion—and the intermittent burst of violence—to weave a tale as brutally "cautionary" as the 3.9-carat engagement ring the Counselor purchases for Laura.
Michael Fassbender (2013's "12 Years a Slave") comes through in the final stretch with an emotional breakdown that stings with unaffected authenticity, but whether he is right for the avaricious but still sympathetic role of The Counselor is up for debate. Fassbender is usually not a warm presence onscreen, often coming off as if he is withholding a darker side, and this aura doesn't quite work for a character who is supposed to be naïve despite his corruptive actions. His sincerity in how much he cares for Laura, however, is undeniable, and Penélope Cruz's (2012's "To Rome with Love") genial inhabitance persists throughout. Laura is unaware of what her fiancé has been doing in his spare time, and doesn't want to know; she likes him too much, and her trust in him could lead her into some perilous clutches.
As Reiner, living the high life while flirting with disaster, Javier Bardem (2012's "Skyfall") nicely conveys the quiet desperation of a man afraid that people—including Malkina—will find out he is an imposter in his own life. He is more informed than The Counselor of the seriousness with which they're involved, but when the chips are down no amount of affluence will be able to save him. Brad Pitt (2013's "World War Z") equips himself with an impeccable vocal rhythm and charisma as Westray, chewing up McCarthy's tasty dialogue. Most impressively, the standout of the ensemble is Cameron Diaz (2011's "Bad Teacher"), utterly voracious as the confident, controlling, morally askew Malkina. Diaz was born to play this complex, unsettling, one-of-a-kind character, and not just for an already-infamous scene where she simulates self-gratification on the windshield of a yellow sports car. The gears in Malkina's mind constantly shifting, her desire to repent for her sins while challenging the priest from whom she seeks, and is denied, confession, Diaz is so commanding and her dark character so fascinating that it's nearly impossible to see anyone else when she's in front of the camera.
"The Counselor" is bleak, bleak, bleak for mainstream studio cinema, but does that really matter when a motion picture is as exquisitely helmed and stirringly envisioned as this one? Veering down avenues one can scarcely believe, emblazoned with lushly inspired cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (2010's "Alice in Wonderland") and an innovatively off-kilter score by Daniel Pemberton (2012's "The Awakening") destined to put a person on edge, the film's study in greed, fate and self-destruction permeates beyond the arrival of the end credits. As paranoia mounts—a set-piece in an airport parking garage and another as Westray walks down a city street, literally anyone around him capable of the unthinkable, are frightening in their real-world plausibility—director Ridley Scott wraps his audience around the neck like a razor wire tightening upon their carotid artery. The further removed one becomes from having watched "The Counselor," the more admirably adventurous and thought-provoking its ferocious pleasures appear.