Very few people saw The Counselor in theaters. Seventy-six percent of those that did see the film didn't like it, according to Rotten Tomatoes. I am one of the few that both saw the film in theaters and enjoyed it. Master director Ridley Scott did something unique here; he created a film that is purposely prickly and perfectly content with keeping its audience at arm's length. The talky narrative from Cormac McCarthy borders on satire at times but elicits a feeling of unease in the stomach unlike anything in recent memory. The very pretty cast, headlined by Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt, does ugly things with grave consequences in this unpleasant urban western. The film marks McCarthy's first stab at an original screenplay, and, while not as successful as his adaptation of "No County for Old Men" for the Coen Brothers, the oil-black humor, duplicitous characters, and bizarre twists could only come from the mind of an auteur. The acting is mostly top notch - I'm undecided on Diaz's performance - and the film is an involving descent into a despair that is partly deserved but totally irremediable.
I have to call bullshit on one thing early on: Fassbender's character, a slippery El Paso attorney referred to only as "the Counselor," drives a Bentley and lives in a ridiculous modern home, but the film hints that most of his work comes from court-appointed clients. Maybe I should move to Texas if the going rate for this type of criminal defense work is that high. This has no bearing on the plot, of course, but it does provide a possible explanation for why the Counselor chooses to join his friend and dealmaker Reiner (Bardem) in an international drug deal that will earn a 4,000 percent return on his investment. Our avocat mystérieux tells Reiner his back is against a wall financially, something he avoids sharing with his gorgeous, wholesome fiancé Laura (Cruz). The questionable plan involves a sewage truck full of heroin and cocaine and might have worked if an unexpected turn of events hadn't put the Counselor's name on the Mexican drug cartel's radar. Tangentially involved in this cluster are middleman Westray (Pitt) and Reiner's predatory girlfriend Malkina (Diaz), who steals the show for not altogether good reasons.
From the opening scene set beneath the sheets with Fassbender and Cruz, the film lingers too long and holds tight on uncomfortably intimate shots, slowly tightening the vise of dread upon the audience. It takes about ten minutes to realize that The Counselor is not moving toward a happy ending, and the undeniably unpleasant subject matter at hand is likely why a large portion of the audience did not enjoy the film. That and the near-constant chatter, some of which McCarthy throws at you like verbal red herrings steering you off the path to hell and toward a false redemption. At first glance, you might assume the Counselor is the villain here, but things are not as they seem. Cocky and dressed like a GQ model, the Counselor is way out of his league when he joins Reiner in the drug trafficking deal. His downfall is swift and ruthless, and Fassbender nails the transformation from swinging dick to gutted fish.
Bardem gets to chew on some of the funniest material, and Reiner tells several bawdy tales of sex and depravity. The most outrageous involves the much-discussed scene of Malkina taking indecent liberties with a Ferrari. Bardem then delivers related adjectives and descriptive nouns like "gynecological" and "catfish." Ridley Scott is a lot funnier than I imagined. This scene is ridiculous, sure, but it illustrates a male's desire to one-up a buddy's conquest story when women aren't around. The Counselor nearly chokes on his gin; Reiner is genuinely scarred by the memory. Malkina is the film's most interesting and divisive character. A Barbadian beauty that looks like she'd eat her young, Malkina is constantly observing and building her arsenal of tricks. During an early scene in which Reiner and Malkina watch their pet cheetahs run in the desert, Malkina delivers some fairly obvious dialogue about predator/prey relationships. The point is delivered anyway. This woman conquers others because she is stronger and because she can. Empathy and regret are totally absent. Where Malkina came from is not fully explained, which isn't surprising since The Counselor leaves much backstory up to the viewer's imagination. Hell, the film never even tells the audience the lead character's name.
The film is as technically polished as you'd expect from Scott. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who also worked with Scott on Prometheus, desaturates pastels and rogue desert reds and yellows, and sharply contrasts natural and artificial light. The editing and sound design are top notch, too, and Daniel Pemberton's score is subtly effective. Fassbender and Bardem are great, as is Cruz, who elicits much empathy as a woman with no place in the film's terrible world. Pitt is funny in his brief scenes, and Diaz tries to do something memorable with Malkina. Her acting is not quite up to par - she drops the Barbadian accent after a few scenes, perhaps the result of dialogue looping - and although she plays the character appropriately cold and soulless, some of Diaz's dialogue delivery feels forced. The Blu-ray includes both the theatrical cut (1:57:14) and a new Unrated Extended Cut (2:17:56), which Ridley Scott describes as "the long version." The added 20 minutes markedly improve the film, making this version the one to watch. Several key scenes are given room to breathe, character relationships are expanded, and the film regains a bit more of the black humor from McCarthy's original script. I may be in the minority on this one, but I really enjoyed The Counselor. It's talky, depressing and punctuated with cruel violence, but anyone who thinks Ridley Scott didn't intend to make his audience uncomfortable is underestimating the maestro.
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is gorgeous thanks to a flawless Red One-shot digital source. Detail is abundant throughout; whether fine object or deep focus. There is a lot of color grading; some shots are sun-drenched and warm, others cold and desaturated, but colors never bleed and skin tones are accurate. Black levels are strong with good shadow detail, and texture is impressive. This is a beautiful, textured HD image that should impress home-theater owners.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is very strong, with excellent dialogue reproduction and effects blending. This is a talky film, but the track is very immersive. Dialogue and ambient effects surround the viewer - just listen to the scene where Pitt and Fassbender meet in the bar of a hotel - and the occasional action effects are pointedly effective. The breezy score is balanced nicely among effects and dialogue, and the surround speakers and subwoofer are used efficiently throughout. The theatrical cut also offers 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in Spanish, French, Castilian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Lithuanian. There are too many subtitle options to list, but all the usual suspects are present.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
I did not expect The Counselor to receive such a nice two-disc Blu-ray after its middling box office performance. The first disc holds the theatrical cut and a few supplements, and the second disc holds the extended cut and the bulk of the bonus materials. Fox includes an UltraViolet digital copy and a matching slipcover.
The first disc includes Viral Pieces: Uncut (7:29/HD). These three segments offer expanded backstory on several characters, including Malkina and Laura. These were apparently shot for promotional purposes and are a nice supplement to the film. The first disc also holds a few Theatrical Trailers (5:50/HD) and several TV Spots (4:50/HD).
The best extra is found with the extended cut on disc two: Truth of the Situation: Making The Counselor (3:36:01/HD). This is somewhat similar to Warner Brothers' (retired?) Maximum Movie Mode, and mixes commentary with Ridley Scott and thirteen branching featurettes covering all aspects of the production. Scott's commentary is only available over this expanded version of the film, and the director provides, as usual, a wonderfully engaging account of the production. The featurettes offer excellent behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and intimate discussion of the film's controversial story and themes. I think the branching featurettes are far superior to picture-in-picture content, as they allow you to fully enjoy the film with commentary. They can also be viewed independently and run 1:18:32.
I hope time will be kind to Ridley Scott's The Counselor. This Cormac McCarthy-written film bombed with critics and audiences upon its release last fall but merits its place among Scott's film catalog. Purposely chilly and unnerving, the film follows Michael Fassbender's character, known only as "the Counselor," as he foolishly agrees to take part in an international drug deal. The supporting cast, which includes Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz and Brad Pitt, is talented, and the Blu-ray's unrated cut improves on an already interesting morality play. That gnawing feeling in your stomach is just Scott deliberately plucking your nerves raw. Highly Recommended.