“The Counselor” opens up with a magnificent scene of and sexual intimacy so skillfully acted by Michael Fassbender and Penélope Cruz, it makes us believe that not only will this movie live up to the promise of the trailer, it might even exceed it. And for the first intriguing hour, it does succeed in drawing us into the decadent and dangerous world of high-end money players in the illicit crime world of the drug trade. But then, just as the second act inciting incident occurs, instead of building on the narrative momentum established, the film falls completely flat, wallowing in its bleakness without any rhyme or reason.
“The Counselor” tells the story of high-powered attorney who decides to get involved in a one-time only illegal deal with some of the powerful and connected cliental he represents. Michael Fassbender plays the title character with a simmering charisma and makes an excellent guide for the audience as he navigates through a landscape of materialistic excesses and colorful criminals who spout philosophical soliloquies and confess about bizarre sexual adventures. And throughout the first half of the film, it all appears to be working as director Ridley Scott stages the scenes with the customary flair we have come to expect from the visual auteur.
The writer of the movie is a highly acclaimed novelist and screenwriter and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. But when it comes to evaluating the story and the choices made by Cormac McCarthy (or whoever did whatever uncredited rewrites there may have been), there is no kind way to put it. The screenplay is a mess. Midway through the second act all the cinematic energy built up in the first act vanishes and the movie comes to a standstill both emotionally and from a narrative perspective. What is worse—what little action that does happen completely betrays what we learned earlier in the film.
Understand, this is not a terrible movie. The first half of the film is entertaining and the performances are memorable. There are even a few early scenes that could be called great. Still, this neo-noir Western material was covered with far better focus in Oliver Stone’s wickedly entertaining and criminally underrated “Savages” (2011).
This is a difficult film to rate. Under the old school four star system this would be a classic 2 ½ stars. Under the system I will give three stars and recommend it—with the strong reservations listed above—to hardcore fans of genre—and for the work of Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt.