It’s a grand week in some towns for movie fans who expect to get their money’s worth at the box office. By grabbing a ticket for “The Counselor,” you’ll get a two-for-one treat – a very strong film from director Ridley Scott (who hasn’t done a very strong one since “American Gangster” in 2007) as well as a case of lightning striking twice in the same spot.
Let me explain: Two terrific films are opening at the same time – this one and “12 Years a Slave.” (Note: “Slave” will open in some cities next week.) There’s a scene in “Slave” where Brad Pitt, as an abolitionist, exchanges heated words with Michael Fassbender, as a cruel plantation owner. It’s a piece of acting heaven with sparks flying off the screen. There are a couple of scenes in “The Counselor” where Brad Pitt, as a mysterious dealmaker, and Michael Fassbender, as a lawyer who’s gotten himself into trouble, do it all again, giving us two smart characters delivering crackling dialogue. The scenes are 180 degrees apart in content from “Slave” but are equally riveting.
The film, jumping around between Juarez, Amsterdam, London and Chicago, seems, at first, to be about couples. We’re introduced, in a hot and heavy sex scene, to a successful lawyer, who is only addressed as Counselor or referred to as the counselor (Fassbender), and nice-girl Laura (Penelope Cruz) who are deeply in love. Then we meet the wealthy and probably dangerous Reiner (Javier Bardem) and the bejeweled, tattooed, and shiny silver-fingernailed Malkina, who you know right away is someone you don’t want to cross. They’re probably more in lust than in love. Then there are the two domesticated cheetahs (I’ve forgotten their names) who like nothing more than a romp in the desert, hunting down jackrabbits together.
Cormac McCarthy’s (“No Country for Old Men”) dialogue gives us lots of quiet but earnest talk about women and murder and drugs. His plotting keeps a few stories spinning on the periphery, but settles upon one on the drug trade. The film is like one of those late-period Westerns where the law has finally taken over the land and the outlaws’ days are numbered. The people here are worried that the drug wars will stop, and if they do, their illegal business will dry up.
It’s in this climate that the counselor finds himself. He needs money, and has decided to fall in with a crowd that will help him get it quickly, if not cleanly. When he first sits down to chat about it with a bruised and battered Westray (Pitt) and is told something to the effect of “you should’ve seen the other guy,” it’s clear that Westray is another person not to mess with.
This is a movie in which everyone has secrets. Some are revealed to others. Some of those others don’t want to hear them – such as in a darkly comic scene with Diaz and a priest in a confession booth. But don’t get fooled by that. This is not a funny movie.
No, this is a grim movie in which violence hits fast, hard and unexpectedly. There are characters you’ll care for and worry about, and characters you’ll fear and wonder about. In the midst of discussions about greed and bad decisions-versus-coincidence, we get a jailed murderess (Rosie Perez) concerned about her newly arrested son, a cold-blooded but poetic speech about actions leading to consequences by a Mob man (Ruben Blades), shoot-outs on long, lonely stretches of road, and an all-encompassing air of paranoia, a feeling that no one is safe in this merciless world.
Some viewers will complain of murky plotting, of certain things not being fully explained. But that’s OK. One of the best things about the film is that it never gives you time to relax; you’re always wondering about what exactly is going on, what will happen next, and who else will be dragged into its ever-growing web. Sometimes you just don’t want to know.
• “The Counselor” is written by Cormac McCarthy and is directed by Ridley Scott. The film stars Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. The film is rated R.