The Counselor (2013): Ridley Scott's riveting crime thriller based on a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy

A modern-day Shakespearean tale of self-destruction

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

The Counselor, Movie Poster, Directed by Ridley Scott
The Counselor (2013) By Ridley Scott
Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 5.7
Genre: Crime | Drama | Thriller
CastMichael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Country: USA | UK
Runtime: 117 min | 138 min (extended cut)

SummaryA rich and successful lawyer, the Counselor, is about to get married to his fiancée but soon becomes entangled in a complex drug plot with a middle-man known as Westray. The plan ends up taking a horrible twist and he must protect himself and his soon to be bride as the truth of the drug business is uncovered and targets are eliminated.

The Counselor is a 2013 crime thriller film directed by English filmmaker Ridley Scott. The Counselor is based on the original screenplay by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and playwright Cormac McCarthy—best known in film circles for the novels No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006), both of which have been made into major motion pictures. The movie’s international ensemble cast includes Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, and Rubén Blades. The Counselor presents the unfortunate tale of an unnamed lawyer, only referred to as the “Counselor,” who, blinded by his lust for lucre, despite being repeatedly warned against it, takes a plunge into the diabolical world of drug trafficking, exposing himself to the merciless Mexican drug cartels around the troubled El Paso–Juárez border area. The border is a metaphor for the dichotomy that exists between the civilized world that we think we have built for ourselves and the real world, hiding behind its goody-goody façade, which is governed by anarchy and barbarism—a pattern that’s key to McCarthy’s oeuvre. The Counselor's self-inflicted annihilation has all the ingredients of a quintessential Shakespearean tragedy, save its contemporary setting.

Brad Pitt (left) as Westray and Michael Fassbender as the "Counselor", in The Counselor, Directed by Ridley Scott
Brad Pitt (left) as Westray and Michael Fassbender as the "Counselor"
Films have been known to glorify murders as well as the brutal designs the perpetrators employ to manifest the figments of their gory imaginations. The Counselor depicts two such horrific designs, both of which rely on the ingenious use of alloy wire to terminate the victim. The cruelty involved in both these designs transcends imagination. It’s heinous. It’s insane. And, yet, it’s no less glamorous. While the first design results in an instantaneous death, the second makes death look like a grand spectacle, just the kind of material that the "Peeping Toms" of the world would cherish. As per the first design, an alloy wire, tied at an optimum height between two poles on the opposite sides of the road, is used to decapitate a speeding biker. The second design uses a throttling apparatus called a “Bolito,” wherein a loop of alloy wire is slipped over the victim’s head, and a small, battery-run motor attached to it, steadily and irreversibly, tightens the loop around the throat until the carotid artery is severed. Speaking of the art of killing, there is a chilling scene in which Westray (Brad Pitt's character) gives a graphic account of a hapless young girl who was slaughtered by one of the drug cartels in order to make a snuff film for a rich client who even went on to rape her headless corpse.

Cameron Diaz as Malkina and Penélope Cruz as Laura in The Counselor (2013), Directed by Ridley Scott
Cameron Diaz (left) and Penélope Cruz in The Counselor
Vintage Ridley Scott, McCarthy's cynical world is on full display here, in all its glory: It’s essentially a treacherous realm inhabited by shifty, savage beings capable of doing the most depraved deeds. McCarthy's trademark motifs of greed, lust, malice and death are omnipresent. The dialogue is gritty and replete with philosophical and spiritual overtones, a facet which makes it daunting for the viewer to imbibe it completely during the first viewing, thereby making multiple viewings essential. Here, this critic would like to draw your attention to two conversations in particular. The first takes place early in the movie wherein the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, playing the part of a Jewish diamond dealer, delivers a haunting lecture in philosophy. “To partake of the stone's endless destiny, is that not the meaning of adornment? To enhance the beauty of the beloved is to acknowledge both her frailty and the nobility of that frailty. At our noblest, we announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives,” he tells reassuringly to the Counselor.

Javier Bardem as Reiner and Michael Fassbender as the "Counselor" in The Counselor (2013), Directed by Ridley Scott
Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender in The Counselor
The second takes place towards the end of the film during which Rubén Blades’ character Jefe demystifies the true meaning of life and death for the Counselor. Jeffe explains “When it comes to grief, the normal rules of wealth do not apply. Because grief transcends value. A man would give entire nations to lift grief off his heart and yet, you cannot buy anything with grief, because grief is worthless.” Barring these two exchanges the movie has several interesting interactions that the Counselor has with Reiner (Javier Bardem’s character) and Westray. The Counselor serves to be a highlight-reel of some of the most graphic and gory scenes every filmed in cinema. And, while these disturbing sequences may enthrall a serious filmgoer or a lover of the crime thriller genre, they are bound to repulse the uninitiated lot. Perhaps, it’s one of the reasons why the movie failed to impress at the box office. Then, there's the movie's ending that may not seem satisfactory to everyone. But, despite its serious nature, the material is not devoid of humor and sex—a great respite for the casual viewers who are liable to get restless when exposed to a relatively heavy dose of material.

Cameron Diaz as Malkina, sitting on the roof of the car, The Counselor (2013), Directed by Ridley Scott
A Still from Ridley Scott's The Counselor
Overall, The Counselor comes across as a multifaceted work of cinema that underlines what a team of a seasoned director and a gifted writer is capable of delivering and yet so rarely delivers. A star studded ensemble cast, for once, doesn't end up overshadowing the movie’s narrative and, if anything, it only strengthens it. Michael Fassbender, who plays the titular role, delivers yet another gutsy performance during which he goes through a gamut of emotions, once again demonstrating his remarkable acting range. Cameron Diaz is an absolute delight to watch as the quintessential mobster’s moll. As Malkina, she is the epitome of feminine villainy and charm. To watch the coldblooded Malkina go about her business is to witness a bloodthirsty predator playing with its helpless prey. Diaz delivers the definitive performance of her career; it’s indeed sad that despite giving such a thorough performance she has gone completely unnoticed at this year’s major award functions. Javier Bardem, never the one to disappoint, looks exquisite in the role of a sybaritic drug kingpin. Penélope Cruz looks steaming hot as the Counselor’s love interest, Laura, especially in the opening bedroom scene she shares with Fassbender.  Brad Pitt gets limited screen time but steals every scene that he is a part of. The final scene featuring Westray with a Bolito around his neck is truly unforgettable. The Counselor’s explicit gory content makes it a difficult film to watch. The movie requires patience and an intelligent viewer will savor it for a long time to come. Just make sure that you go for the 138 minute long extended cut. A must watch!

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  

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  1. I absolutely agree... also, I am glad you liked the film as well as the review... many thanks for sharing your valuable thoughts!!! :-)

  2. Maniparna Sengupta MajumderFebruary 5, 2014 at 5:23 PM

    Nice review..

  3. I've been avoiding this one, but seeing your huge score has intrigued me. Will try to catch the extended cut soon.


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