Money. Power. And sex. Especially sex. The Counselor starts between the sheets with a dirty/sweet sex scene between the titular lawyer (Michael Fassbender) and his winsome, relatively modest girlfriend, Laura (the impossibly adorable Penélope Cruz), and sex courses through the arteries of the rest of Cormac McCarthy’s script (his first ever). The Counselor (the only name he’s given) lives for it, telling Laura, “Life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting.” The Machiavellian Malkina (Cameron Diaz) wields it like a weapon in her relationship with flamboyant nightclub owner Reiner (Javier Bardem), literally f—king his Ferrari. And cowboy middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) could very well die for it.
Head over heels in love, the Counselor travels to Amsterdam to buy a diamond for his lady and gets schooled in the credo of adornment by a witty dealer (Bruno Ganz). Every conversation in McCarthy’s screenplay, even this small one, is an opportunity for viscous philosophical discussion, thick with ideas and inquiry that demand attention. Each sordid anecdote, too, serves as a verbal equivalent of Chekhov’s gun, a foreshadow of what’s to come. The dialogue is delivered so fast and hard, sometimes it takes a second for the jokes to land.
After the Counselor’s genuinely affecting proposal, Malkina coldly analyzes the stone for her frenemy Laura, revealing to the audience that her fiancé has opted for a more expensive gem. Although a well-respected attorney, he lives beyond his means, motivating his first foray into an illicit business deal facilitated by the Hank Williams-esque Westray, dressed head-to-toe in white Western gear. Westray warns the Counselor off the deal, but in a fresh take on the genre, our hero isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and he moves forward, blissfully unaware that mere coincidence could unravel not only the business arrangement but his whole life.
Set on the El Paso-Juarez border (though convincingly filmed in the United Kingdom and Spain), Ridley Scott’s thriller revels in character. Surrounding the agreeable couple is a cadre of outlandish personalities, including Bardem’s Reiner, with his Anne Burrell hair and gaudy Versace shirts. He’s a player in the underworld but in over his head with this Malkina chick, intimidated by her intellect and no longer sure what’s going on in his own house. As lithe and predatory as the cheetahs she keeps as pets, Diaz’s femme fatale bears tattooed spots like the big cats she so admires and a gold-capped canine. Pitt’s Westray brings a sexy swagger to the proceedings, but even he has an Achilles heel. And Rosie Perez makes a plain-faced appearance as a smart-assed court-appointed client.
Dense with esoteric dialogue, The Counselor can be abstruse, stingy when it comes to details about the deal playing out in a parallel storyline involving a sewage truck packed with barrels of drugs. But it’s stimulating and seductively dark—a smart, challenging neo-noir.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Release date: Oct. 18, 2013