The 400-Word Review: The Counselor

By Sean Collier

October 28, 2013

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Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer-winning novelist so singularly gifted that I’m hesitant to level anything resembling criticism in his direction, has written two screenplays in his career. One is The Counselor, which premieres in theaters today; the other is The Gardener’s Son, completed in 1976 and aired on PBS in 1977.

McCarthy has written seven novels — including Blood Meridian, The Road and No Country for Old Men — between his two screenplays; he’s been called America’s greatest living novelist. It’s understandable and forgivable, then, if The Counselor moves and unfolds more like a book than a film. It just means that the screenplay may be a more impressive achievement than the resulting movie.

The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender), who is not named beyond that title, is enraptured with Laura (Penelope Cruz) and about to propose. Simultaneously, though, he’s considering taking a financial stake in a drug deal as risky as it is large.

I’d deliver more detail on the plot and the characters entwined in it — including Reiner (Javier Bardem), a flamboyant kingpin and entrepreneur, Westray (Brad Pitt), a cautious middle man, and Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s enigmatic lover — but to be honest, I’m not sure I’m clear on all of the details. The Counselor requires two viewings to suss out exactly what’s going down, and it’d probably take three to pick up on the subtlety of the many scenes where the characters are talking about anything but the matter at hand.


The dialogue is captivating and the action compelling, but the rhythm is uncomfortable. Intentionally or not, The Counselor moves as in chapters rather than in acts; while McCarthy and director Ridley Scott are under no obligation to play to the norm, the bold pacing makes it easy to lose one’s grip on the story.

The performances are worthy of the material, with the stark exception of Diaz; her role is pivotal, and she is clueless about what to do with it. (Having glanced at the screenplay, she’s also thoroughly miscast.) The southwestern settings will be familiar to “Breaking Bad” fans, but are rendered more lyrically here than they were in that series.

The Counselor will almost certainly confound more viewers than it dazzles — which may well have been the point. It’s certainly more impressive than it is enjoyable. Even if it didn’t quite reach its full potential, it’s worth some attention and will find devotees.

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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