There has been a lot of chatter about Ridley Scott in the build up for his film The Counselor. It has largely centered on whether or not he’s a great director, which may sound absurd considering he gave us two stone-cold classics in Alien and Blade Runner. Those movies are each three decades old, with Scott having made eighteen movies in the meantime of vastly varying quality, with eleven films since 2000 alone. The visuals are always there, but is Scott the kind of filmmaker capable of lifting a so-so script?
Well, that debate might have to linger on further, since the screenplay provided him by Cormac McCarthy for The Counselor is a cynical gem, rubbing elbows with the dregs of society and the harm that comes with doing so. At its center is Michael Fassbender, the figure identified by the title and never anything else. Fassbender is a man dipping his toes into the grungier side of the criminal underworld after helping so much of its ilk in the courts. There may be more danger; there’s oodles more cash. His wife (Penelope Cruz) is gob-smacked by the diamond he proposes with, a clear sign that Fassbender’s actions are worthwhile. He’s even quite chummy with his criminal partner, a wild-haired slightly delirious drug-trafficker played by Javier Bardem.
Of course, one can’t merely dip one’s toes into something with this much money involved and sprinkled with men and women of the most egregious variety. Scott and McCarthy’s depiction of this fact of nature is vivid and not as easily digestible as it may sound. There are not that many characters, yet we do spend a fair amount of time with each of them, including Bardem’s ruthless, clinical wife (Cameron Diaz) and another criminal baring a bluntly grim view of life (Brad Pitt). While Fassbender is surely the lead, the narrative isn’t only a look at one person’s trails and tribulations. McCarthy’s script presents archetypes, each with enough shading to standout. If one’s looking for character growth or an empathetic figure; look elsewhere. This is a film of themes and mood; not plot.
One such theme is staying in your lane. As things progress -to put it lightly - roughly, we see that those whom get by best in the criminal world are playing the small-game. Drivers moving a truck loaded with a sizable shipment of drugs pass off keys after deliveries, snatching wads of cash for their service. Those eager to jump into plans which don’t involve them or reach beyond their means; heads severed, limbs are lost. In a fascinating scene between Fassbender and Pitt, the latter details a knowledge of his place in the world. He has done bad things and is fine with it, even as he accepts the lush lifestyle comes hand and hand with a basic fact. Pitt knows his life could end any day, hour or minute.
The brutality the creative pair emits is alarming. The horrors some people physically suffer in The Counselor makes one wince. However, Scott never presents these bloody moments as anything more than matter of fact. There are no characters above it all or with the skill to avoid certain death via cinematic skill. Bullets kill you and then you’re done. Well, unless there’s that worst of options, which is presented in the last act.
The Counselor opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.