The Counselor

Oct 29, 2013

A few of us critics love this little neo-noir set in West Texas.

The Counselor

Grade: A-

Director: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien)

Screenplay: Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road, All the Pretty Horses)

Cast: Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona)

Rating: R

Runtime: 117 min.

by John DeSando

“Radix malorum cupiditas est.” (“Greed is the root of evil”) Geoffrey Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale

Although Cormac McCarthy may not be the Chaucer of our time, the two have written as well as anyone could about the consequences of greed. McCarthy’s first original screenplay, The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, has much poignant neo-noir dialogue about the existential choices characters make for money, the responsibility they have for their fates.

Nameless El Paso lawyer, the counselor (Michael Fassbender), surely a name representing the flawed legal system, is involved in a high-octane drug deal because he needs the money.  His eventual descent into horror is framed by McCarthy as possibly stemming from extreme love for Laura (Penelope Cruz), an idealized love for which he would do anything, even commit to a diamond ring whose cost must be partial reason for his needing money. "I plan to love you until I die,” says the counselor to Laura upon their engagement, evidence of hisdevotion and McCarthy’s occasional slip into cliché, even if it is an accurate reflection of a fate that could be waiting.

If you remember Javier Bardem’s bad guy, Anton Chigurh, in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, who carried a lethal bolt pistol, you’ll not be surprised the bad guys in The Counselor have a motor-powered bolito acting as a garrote that can quietly behead a character in the middle of a busy street. (Bardem’s Reiner, a wild and crazy nightclub owner and drug dealer, is almost as flamboyant as Chigurh is understated.)

Adding to McCarthy’s dark and bizarre flourishes is having the sexy Malkina (Cameron Diaz) perversely doing the splits on a Ferrari windshield with the result . . . . Well, you have to see it to believe it, but like the rest of McCarthy, the scene is memorable and kinky enough to suggest the depraved world the counselor now occupies. The opening sex scene between the counselor and Laura is more delicate and much sexier than any other scene but less spectacular.

Although The Counselor has too many plot strands for its own good, few films are as powerful creating a slow-growing fear, and even fewer giving the sense of a nemesis catching those who have not heeded the warning signs of inevitable payback. When asked what he would like to drink, the counselor answers, “Hemlock.” McCarthy shows his humor and fatalism in a single dose.

Fate ironically anchored by everyday life is best expressed by the counselor’s shady middleman and the film’s resident philosopher, Westray (Brad Pitt): "The beheadings and the mutilations? That's just business...It's not like there's some smoldering rage at the bottom of it." The language is gritty and elegant with an occasional overdose such as Westray saying about mortality, “We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.” I’m not complaining because the dialogue is almost always deliciously literate if not occasionally over the top.

Although little may be at the bottom of this bloody business, it’s still bizarre, scary, and darn good entertainment.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at