The best way to really understand why I enjoyed 'The Counselor' is to say it's like watching a Cormac McCarthy novel come to life, a literal translation of the author's words splattered across the silver screen. As a general rule, I much prefer to never compare the quality of a film adapted from a book to the source material — they are two completely different mediums, so the rules don't apply equally — or ever make such bold comparisons remotely similar to that effect, by which I mean I'm not one for paralleling films to books in any shape whatsoever. And this is not to suggest this particular motion picture started as a book. In fact, the thickly complicated screenplay is a McCarthy original, his first since 1977's "The Gardener's Son" which aired on the PBS series, 'Visions.'
The point I'm aiming at — and probably failing at miserably — is that the Ridley Scott-directed crime thriller reads more like a novel than a traditional film narrative, eschewing usual conventions like exposition, a typical three-act structure and a resolution that satisfies expectations. It's a film that challenges audiences to subtly ponder the moribund characters themselves and their moral actions when tempted by greed. The script itself is a dense, elaborate piece of work with endless concrete descriptions, and Scott, for the most part, stays true to McCarthy's every word — more so in the unrated, extended cut than the theatrical version. The entire story is driven by the seemingly meaningless dialogue, conversations — some darkly funny anecdotes and others tensely portentous — that seem to go on forever without purpose.
And therein lies the rub, hinting at my earlier idea comparing 'The Counselor' to a novel. Some familiarity — possibly a deep familiarity — with the works of Cormac McCarthy would probably gain viewers a better appreciation of this rather excellent film. As much as I'd rather not admit to such notions, it really seems to be the case in this instance, which I'm sure some will see as a fault. The narrative is replete with esoteric, lengthy dialogue, of the sort often forgiven in any number of Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet screenplays. Only, McCarthy's words carry a grimly bleak and nihilistic feel that's suggestive of the monstrous side of human nature. The conversations are unconsciously underscored by a perverse, very darkly sardonic sense of humor on the small, random coincidences of life and of the choices which bring a person one step closer to death.
That last part carries notions on fate and providence, particularly in the case of The Counselor (Michael Fassbender), who remains nameless throughout, and Westray (Brad Pitt). Easily persuaded to invest into the profitable drug trafficking business by sleazy and eccentric entrepreneur Reiner (Javier Bardem), the usually cautious lawyer meets the charismatic cowboy for a chat ripe with foreshadowing and warnings of anticipating the unpredictable. The two men carry on as if rambling nonsense about sex or longwinded philosophy, but the back and forth demonstrates each man's false sense of certainty of the future. Fassbender is constantly writing details into a small notepad while Pitt radiates in confident machismo. The women are equally complex, with Penélope Cruz as The Counselor's naïve and sadly gullible fiancée Laura while Cameron Diaz plays the devil in disguise as the creepily sordid and calculating Malkina.
As the first big-screen feature from an original Cormac McCarthy screenplay, 'The Counselor' is a fascinating and ambitious motion picture, prompted and animated by verbose, elusively complicated scenes overflowing with dialogue that's both oddly lyrical and nonsensical. Behind the camera, Ridley Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ('Dark City,' 'Prometheus') imbue the conversations with an air of anxiety and unease, an austere, disquieting atmosphere that perfectly complements the underlying themes of fate and death. Ultimately, the film is a deliberately slow potboiler, as seemingly random scenes that feel like a piecemeal nightmare build towards a suspenseful, inescapable climax. The whole enterprise suggests one's fortune is sealed by the decisions they make, like the Antonio Machado poem quoted by a cartel leader. No matter the precautions and assurances made, much of life is left to chance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'The Counselor' to Blu-ray as a two-disc package with a code for an HD digital copy. Both discs are Region Free, BD50s sitting on opposing panels inside a blue, eco-elite case with a glossy slipcover. The first contains the 117-minute theatrical version while the second features the 138-minute unrated, extended cut. The twenty-minute difference is substantial, showing a variety of scenes and conversations (an earlier introduction of The Green Hornet biker buying a bag of dog food and phone call from Laura to Malkina) that actually add weight to the narrative. At startup, each disc commences with a small collection of skippable trailers, but the second disc goes straight to a menu screen with full-motion clips and music.
Faithful to the stylish intentions of the filmmakers, 'The Counselor' debuts on Blu-ray with a beautiful, highly-detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Facial complexions appear healthy and appropriate to the climate, with the exception of Javier Bardem's unappealing orangey tan. Every pore and wrinkle in the faces of the cast is plainly visible while each thread and stich in the clothing is distinct. Fine lines in the buildings, furniture and foliage are sharp and resolute, except for those few occasions where the cinematography noticeably and deliberately softness. Primaries are quite vibrant, giving the 2.40:1 image a bold, energetic feel, and softer pastels are full of warmth and cleanly rendered. Contrast and brightness are well-balanced for the most part, but there are several times when the picture looks flat and a bit dull with a slightly less-than-satisfying blacks. All in all, it's a wonderful high-def transfer.
The crime thriller also makes its case with an excellent and very subtle DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which generates a consistently attractive wall of sound. The front soundstage is expansive with discrete, well-placed off-screen effects and flawless panning between the three channels. Dynamic range is extensive and detailed, exhibiting superb clarity and separation in all the frequencies with outstanding acoustics and fidelity. The low end is surprisingly robust and full-bodied with an appreciable response that adds a hearty thump to the music and couple of action sequences. Amid all this, vocals remain precise and intelligible in the center of the screen. Rear activity is largely limited and reserved, but when employed, the surrounds deliver a variety of atmospherics with good directionality, which nicely extend the soundfield and create a pleasing environment.
From a dense and richly complicated screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, 'The Counselor' is a challenging potboiler crammed with intricate, seemingly nonsensical but also lyrical dialogue that hints at themes of fate, providence and death. Working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Ridley Scott directs an all-star cast in a story the slowly builds to a suspenseful, nihilistic and bleakly existential end. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation but a somewhat disappointing assortment of supplements. However, the unrated, extended cut of the film is exclusive to Blu-ray, making it a very tempting purchase for fans but a strong rental for those coming in blind.