The Counsellor – Film Review

The announcer at my screening began the show by saying, “this isn’t Die Hard, you actually have to pay attention” and to some extent that is correct. 

The plot soldiers on at an undulating pace and demands your attention, lest you be discarded by the wayside. But to call it the most sophisticated narrative ever would be a lie similar in size to that of my gaping mouth during the most outrageous sex scene you’ll see all year. Cameron Diaz plus Ferrari minus morals? Yes please.

Still, over-complexity isn’t an issue, and quite why many media outlets have slammed the movie because of this is baffling. The premise is quite simple on the face of it, but the way it all unravels in the final act adds a level of intelligence that stops it becoming just another criminal thriller. What it does so masterfully is expand an age-old plot point to create Hitchcock levels of tension, though those of you who bathe in the joy of blood fountains may be found wanting once you are dumped into the (rather abrupt) ending.

The unnamed Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) is a wealthy man with a great lifestyle, a great car, a great house and a great wife, Laura (played innocently by the resplendent Penélope Cruz). But his greed gets him in hot water; an expensive drug deal goes sour (in spectacular, head-severing fashion) and both he and his associates find themselves on a kill list.

There are countless movies in which someone is wanted dead by a drug cartel but The Counsellor tackles it in a different way. The fear that seeps into each character’s life is startling. It becomes their world; the paranoia, the constant peeking over their shoulder. The physical act of killing plays second fiddle, it’s the thought of being killed that leads the orchestra. It’s exhilarating, and made worse by the fact that this shady cartel remains hidden most of the time – a terror that never fully reveals itself. All they know is you’re going to die; it’s going to be slow and it’s going to be painful. But worst of all, they don’t know when it’ll happen. All they can do is keep moving.

The cast themselves do a great job of responding to the news of their imminent execution. Fassbender is brilliant as the cool, sleek Counsellor. He’s a weak man; easy to sway, easy to taunt, but he can hide it with his vast wealth. All he cares about is his wife, and he’ll do anything to protect her. A lover with no real balls, just a Bentley. He’s fascinating, and Fassbender gives him an eerie charm with that famous smile.

He is persuaded to join the crime world by Javier Bardem’s manic Reiner; a man who lives an incredibly lavish lifestyle and doesn’t give a s**t about the consequences. Enjoying a madness of fortune matched only by the wildness of his hair; Bardem has added another pearler to his repertoire of oddball characters. Perhaps the film’s most interesting aspect, Reiner is a bizarre man who delivers possibly the vilest fish-based simile you’ll ever hear. The only thing of comparable disgust is his shirt collection. Thank goodness the film isn’t in 3D.

By his side is the ravenous Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who is a total man-eater, much like her beloved pet cheetahs. Controlling, desirable and brutal; she knows what she wants and she’ll damn well get it. Diaz brings authority and sexiness to the roll and is a stark contrast to the relative push-overness of the two male leads. The dynamic between them all is fascinating, made even more complex by Brad Pitt’s Westray; a cowboy moneyman that Pitt could play in his sleep.

It’s a shame that all they ever seem to talk about is sex though. For a script written by the celebrated Cormac McCarthy it spends an enormous amount of time hovering around the issue. Amorous lethargy will set in after the third or so sex tale and you’ll be willing the movie to move up a gear – something which it takes a long time to do. Rather than being concise with their words, characters seem to want to confound us by chewing everything over with massive, pretentious monologues. It slows everything down.

These words cause a reek of intelligence though. These are smart people so it’s fitting that they have something proper to speak. Is it too much? That depends on how receptive you are to philosophical, drawn-out dialogue. You can tell it was written by an author, that’s all you need to know, and this writer felt it added something charmingly poetic to the brutal world this story unfolds in. The crime of grinding everything to a halt is almost forgiven because of the offender’s sheer elegance.

The sophistication carries over to what you actually see on screen. You may assume this is a thriller full of action, but you’d be wrong. Sure, there are dramatic scenes dotted around, but nothing matching what we’re used to seeing from films of this type. It falls in line with Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant Traffic; it’s more a character piece than a bloodbath. It does make the trailer’s “…and the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining” line seem a little misleading though.

It is a heart stopping tale of getting in with the wrong crowd. The axe may never come smashing through the door, but the constant fear of this hidden menace is more than enough to keep you on your toes. It may take a while to get things rolling, but when it does it’s a gripping and emotional flick with a jet black tone. A lack of action may have hamper its success with the violence fans and its razor sharp script may be too grating for some, but overall it’s a perfectly satisfactory thriller, and another great addition to Ridley Scott’s canon.

3.5 out of 5

Would you Like to (A) Watch the full length trailer below or (B) Watch the scene with Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz from the image above?

Words by Matt Gammond

Article also featured on: