2013 Certificate: 18

Synopsis

Michael Fassbender leads a class-A cast in Ridley Scott's grimly stylish crime thriller as the titular lawyer whose decision to enter the drug trade proves horribly unwise. With sex, death and greed high on the agenda, the first original screenplay from Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) provides plenty of philosophical meat for everyone to chew on, including the Counsellor's shadiest client Javier Bardem, cartel middleman Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz as the femme fatale who pulls everybody's strings. Importing is costly but life is cheap in a tale that couldn't be more cautionary if it came with a government health warning.

Director

  • Ridley Scott

Cast

  • Michael Fassbender

  • Cameron Diaz

  • Javier Bardem

  • Brad Pitt

  • Penelope Cruz

  • Dean Norris

Review

Anyone familiar with the work of Cormac McCarthy will be aware that his pen does not exactly flow with the milk of human kindness. So it'll come as no surprise that his first bespoke movie script bears all the joie de vivre of a drug mule who's just developed belly ache.

While presented as a glossy crime thriller, The Counsellor feels more like a particularly tough philosophy lecture, offering metaphorical and existential musings on sex, death, religion, sex, greed, love, sex, commitment and consequence. But mostly sex.

It begins with Michael Fassbender's unnamed lawyer (everyone calls him 'Counsellor') making his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz) squeal. First in bed, then later with an engagement ring.

His biggest client, gaudy entrepreneur Reiner (Bardem), also has his hands full with the constantly on-heat Malkina (Diaz, vamping it up to the hilt), a manipulative maneater who comes with two pet cheetahs and - if you didn't already get that she's a predator - a back full of leopard-spot tattoos.

Anyway, despite having it pretty good, the counsellor wants his perma-tanned pal to help him invest in the world's most volatile market: hard drugs from Mexico. One meeting with Brad Pitt's slick go-between Westray later, and he's in.

Unfortunately, the counsellor's commitment to another client - small-time jailbird Rosie Perez - sees him come under suspicion from the cartel when a truck containing $20million-worth of their product is... misappropriated.

Innocence is no defence. Heads will roll. In fact, one already has.

As you'd expect from Scott, the action is efficient, clinical and nasty. If only the same could be said of McCarthy's dialogue, which always sounds pretty but too often lapses into profound irrelevance.

Same goes for half the characters, with a host of familiar faces popping up to pique the interest only to disappear after a single scene.

Okay, so Perez gets a scene and a bit. And at least Bruno Ganz's jeweller and cartel boss Ruben Blades get to wax philosophical about their respective trades. But for Toby Kebbell, John Leguizamo, ER's Goran Visnjic and - in a shameless hook-up to the Breaking Bad bandwagon - Dean Norris, it's thankless walk-on city.

Nobody minds the odd shoehorned cameo or unlikely plot contrivance. But surely a writer of McCarthy's calibre has no need to pad out with cliché or lift from other movies?

Apparently not. For every neat soundbite ("Truth has no temperature" says Malkina on being accused of sounding cold) there are a dozen pronouncements of the "dying is easy / grief is worthless / life is like a boxachocolates" variety. And the counsellor's first meeting with Westray is ripped straight from the revered De Niro/Pacino coffee shop scene in Heat.

Perhaps it's all just his way of showing what a cynical world this is. If so, message understood. Coolly executed and relentlessly unforgiving, The Counsellor makes The Road look positively yellow-bricked.