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Blu-ray Review: The Counselor Unrated Extended Cut
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The Counselor

The Counselor: Unrated Extended Cut
Blu-ray l DVD
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy
Starring Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 11, 2014

Of all the highly anticipated films released last year I don’t think any of them received the critical blanket party that greeted the opening of The Counselor, the pulpy drug world thriller that united influential filmmaker Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Pulitzer Prize-adorned author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian), the latter having penned his first original feature screenplay. To say that expectations were high for this film is an understatement on the level of the scene in Easy Rider where Peter Fonda tells Dennis Hopper, “We blew it.”

People hated this movie, man. Hated it. Obviously The Counselor had its share of defenders amongst the filmgoing public and the shadowy agents of the blogosphere, but they were mostly silenced or shouted down as the star-studded noir plummeted to a 34% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a massively disappointing fourth opening at the box office. Scott has had his considerable share of theatrical flops that were later vindicated on home video in the form of extended and rejiggered director’s cuts. Not surprisingly, his latest film has received the same treatment and The Counselor may yet find the audience that either berated or ignored it on the big screen as twenty minutes have been added to this exclusive “unrated extended cut.”

Do these previously deleted scenes elevate Scott and McCarthy’s lurid, languid potboiler to the status of an underrated masterpiece? Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, the haters were hopelessly misguided? Well, let’s see…

The Counselor

To discuss the plot of The Counselor in detail is to spoil the pleasures of its carefully unfolding narrative, so I will tread lightly. Michael Fassbender is the title character, a cool-headed lawyer with a lack of scruples and an overabundance of expenses, the prettiest being his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz), whom he intends to wed. He decides to use the influence of some of his criminal clientele, including the decadently wealthy Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his ambiguous arm candy Malkina (Cameron Diaz), to broker a drug deal that will pay out $20 million and set him and his unsuspecting fiancee up for life. As sordid tales like this go, nothing happens according to plan. Betrayals occur, violence ensues, lives are snuffed, and the entire film might just leave you reeling once it’s all over.

That is about all I can tell you because in McCarthy’s world the plot isn’t as important as the morally complex characters involved, and not because things get so complicated I would need a flow chart in order to boil it all down into a review-worthy synopsis. We have Wikipedia for that. The devil is in the details, as they love to say, and this devil wants to dance.

The Counselor

Make no mistake, folks; The Counselor is far, far from the film you expect it to be. The combination of the director who made some of the most visually astounding sci-fi thrillers and epic adventures of the past four decades and the prolific author who managed to get a dark, esoteric apocalyptic novel in Oprah’s Book Club made this one of last year’s surefire movie-going propositions. But once critics and audiences saw the film for themselves they reacted as if they had cruelly deceived. Part of the blame could be attributed to 20th Century Fox’s marketing campaign that sold Scott’s film as a slick, sexy roller coaster ride with gorgeous stars and picaresque vice. Then again that’s what most of us had already envisioned it to be long before the first trailers arrived. We should have known better.

Very rarely can one accuse Scott of being a conventional director without coming across as a detractor with a staggering lack of hindsight; every film he makes, for better or worse, comes into being primarily because of his will to see it done. Nor can you easily attach a label to Cormac McCarthy, because there is a reason why his fans often liken novels such as Child of God and All the Pretty Horses to the works of celebrated writers the likes of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. The man knows how to write an unforgettable and gripping story with both characters and dialogue that ring true.

In short, to harbor any expectations that The Counselor would merely be a frothy weekend evening’s entertainment to be enjoyed before or after a dinner of shrimp scampi with herbed rice pilaf and a rousing game of Pictionary with the neighbors is an error in judgment worthy of Custer.

The Counselor

The film the less enlightened among us could not have possibly seen coming is worlds removed from the vacuously thrilling Fast & The Furious franchise. What we do get is a dark, scabrous meditation on the pursuit of wealth and power and the unforseen consequences that can impact those who foolishly believe they can somehow rise above the fray. It is brutal, philosophical, sexually frank, and uncompromising. This is purely and simply powerful storytelling. Scott tends to work beautifully with talented writers who can bang out terrific scripts without breaking a sweat and there are few more adept at the task than McCarthy, a wizard of weaving pitch black narratives of intelligent individuals becoming entwined in suffocating webs of greed, deceit, and death. The Counselor is no different as its characters hurtle willingly into the yawning chasm of criminal life where the only true victory is survival, and even those who live to tell the tale are forever broken at the hands of forces they thought they were smart enough to defeat.

The Counselor

McCarthy’s characters are smart and loquacious and every line of spoken dialogue does not come at the expense of a wasted breath. A conversation between a man and woman about the pleasures of oral sex can reveal more about who these people are than an entire page of expositional dialogue. One of the primary criticisms leveled at The Counselor time and again since its release was the presence of long scenes where the characters have intriguing dialogue duels rather than having them punch, shoot, and screw one another. Heaven forbid we can have a film where adults conduct adult conversations full of delicious quotable lines savored by a top-form cast like an expensive, luxurious meal prepared by the world’s finest chefs. The film is bursting at its exquisitely stitched seams with rich monologues delivered by characters actors renowned across the globe such as Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) and Rubén Blades (The Two Jakes), and even though they usually vanish from the story afterwards the impact of their fleeting moments on-camera cannot be denied.

Other dialogue exchanges function as shrewd deconstructions of shopworn cinematic cliches that often have the reverse effect they might have in the hands of lesser talents. Take, for example, a scene where Reiner tells the Counselor a story about the time he watched as Malkina got rather…intimate with the windshield of his expensive sports car. In any other film this scene would serve no greater purpose than to be a source of temporary titillation, and to her credit Diaz puts both her body and dignity to the test. But as written by McCarthy and performed by Bardem the scene takes on an entirely different context that I dare not spoil. Bardem’s facial expressions that go from arousal to curiosity to frightened awe in the span of mere seconds make the flashback a time capsule-worthy moment, perfectly brought to fruition by the moment when Reiner embarrassingly reveals that he had to use his socks to clean the windshield off.

The Counselor

That’s McCarthy’s bleak, occasionally inappropriate yet devilishly playful sense of humor at work. The Counselor isn’t a laugh riot mind you, but there are lines of dialogue here and there that might elicit a chuckle or a relieved guffaw from you at first, and as the plot continues to unfold they’ll stick right in your throat. The film’s structure is built to resemble a short novel being adapted directly from the page, with most of the longer dialogue scenes playing out in the manner of an entire chapter of the story. That isn’t to say that the pace lags at any time; far from it, editor Pietro Scalia – who has worked on nearly every Ridley Scott film since 1997′s G.I. Jane – uses a full selection of close-ups and medium and wide shots to construct the footage into dynamic scenes that never feel extraneous to the narrative. Certain scenes, such as the conversation between the Counselor and Ganz’ Swiss diamond merchant, would make wonderful short films.

Fassbender is wonderfully cast as the film’s idea of a hero, though he takes no heroic action during the story except to try to save his own ass and Laura’s as well. He isn’t unsympathetic though and Fassbender uses a silken tone of voice (backed up by a pretty decent Texas accent) and his natural charisma to make the Counselor into a likable guy in spite of the selfish moves he makes. Critics accused the character of being a non-entity in his own film, but the man is a lawyer after all, not an action hero. Maybe audiences would’ve been more comfortable had Fassbender picked up some guns in the third act and took the fight directly to the Mexican cartel in a shower of bullets and blood to a rockin’ soundtrack. The Counselor is a great figure of moral ambiguity and in Fassbender’s interactions with Cruz you can see the deep, abiding love he has for the woman in his life – the one thing he truly has to lose.

Speaking of Cruz, the lovely actress has never made much of an impression on American audiences as she did in her native Spain. Though her character in The Counselor serves as little more than a plot motivator she makes Laura a sweet and caring person whose vulnerabilities make her an instant target to those whom she comes into contact. Her scenes with Diaz (at her best in years as the quietly manipulative Malkina) carry a flirtatious overtone with hints of a lesbian subtext that is never fully spelled out but adds an intriguing layer of mystery to the narrative that takes greater shape upon repeat viewings, if you’re up to the task.

Bardem steals his every scene as Reiner, the connected underworld player who doesn’t wield as much power as he prefers to believe, with hilarious dialogue and one loony wardrobe. Brad Pitt shows up a few times as cartel middleman Westray and makes the most of his limited screen time with a terrific performance oozing with dark wit and a few subtle hints of pathos. Édgar Ramírez (Zero Dark Thirty), Goran Višnjić (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Toby Kebbell (War Horse), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), and John Leguizamo (Summer of Sam) all put in worthwhile performances in extended cameo roles that often have them not interacting with the principal players.

The Counselor

The Counselor was mostly filmed in Spain and England – with pick-up shots done in the U.S. – and the European locations lend the scenes a distinctive aesthetic flavoring rooted in the haunting crime dramas and westerns of world cinema past. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who has worked with both Scott and his late brother Tony countless times in recent years, bathes the lush and intimidating locales in light harsh enough to fry your eyeballs while bringing a moodier tone to the interior scenes filmed on London soundstages.

Scott brought in British composer Daniel Pemberton, whose previous credits include the acclaimed Ghost Recon: Alpha short, to create his first major feature film score and the results make for an audibly pleasing compliment to The Counselor. Pemberton’s music is shaded with hints of Ennio Morricone’s bombastic spaghetti western scores and the brooding, minimalist soundtrack composed by Carter Burwell for the McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men. It’s the kind of score that you can listen to on your MP3 player and instantly recall scenes from the film without really thinking of it. Pemberton is one of the genuine discoveries of this film and it will be pretty interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Most importantly, The Counselor finds its director working at the peak of his talents and in the service of great filmmaking for once. Scott has made one of the finest-acted films of his career, and by allowing the performances and script to take center stage he proves himself to be as adept to directing his actors as he is crafting vivid and operatic visuals. It’s nice to see the guy taking the considerable clout he has amassed over the course of his legendary career in cinema to make a film infinitely more bleak and moralistic than for which he is famous. Great directors have defied the expectations of their supporters to bring them challenging features that they might initially despise with volcanic passion but later come to appreciate and even love with subsequent viewings.

I would gladly place The Counselor (especially in its extended and uncut form) in the company of other misunderstood gems of film such as William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and more recently Michael Mann’s big-screen Miami Vice. That’s pretty good company to be in, and I know a lot of folks would happily agree.

Video

Both cuts of The Counselor are presented by Fox in MPEG-4 encoded transfers mastered in 1080p high-definition and presented in the 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The glorious, sun-baked visuals sparkle with fantastic clarity and enriched picture detail, while the deep black shadows in the low-light interior scenes add immeasurable atmosphere to the film. These are marvelous presentations of a visually sumptuous feature. Both versions come with English, Spanish, Italian, French, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Estonian, Hindi, Latvian, Lithuanian, Chinese, Ukrainian, and English Text subtitle options.

Audio

The only audio option for the extended cut is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but it’s a great one, with the vibrant dialogue and Pemberton music score mixed to crystalline perfection and no manual volume adjustment required. The theatrical cut has that track and it works beautifully not to my surprise, but it also comes with an English 5.1 descriptive audio track as well as Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Ukrainian Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish, Italian, and Russian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. For those of you who speak English as a tenth language you’ll find that any of these tracks will perform admirably for your listening pleasure.

Special Features

Regardless of how much they earn at the box office Ridley Scott’s films typically get the deluxe treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, and Fox has not disappointed when it comes to his latest.

Both the theatrical (117 minutes) and extended (138 minutes) cuts of The Counselor are included on two 50GB Blu-ray discs for those collectors who prefer complete packages. The first disc pairs the theatrical version with a trio of uncut Viral Pieces that function as short compliments to the main feature focusing on several of its most important characters: Laura (3 minutes); The Counselor (3 minutes); and Malkina and Reiner (2 minutes). Also included are three theatrical trailers (6 minutes), ten television spots (5 minutes), and a Sneak Peek menu that includes trailers for Robocop, Runner Runner, 12 Years a Slave, and The Family along with a promotional spot for MGM’s 90th Anniversary celebration. The first three trailers also play upfront before the main menu and are followed there by an additional trailer for Out of the Furnace.

The major extra of the extended cut disc is Truth of the Situation, an interactive behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Counselor comprised of a feature-length audio commentary from director Scott and thirteen video featurettes that all play during the film. You can also watch the featurettes individually from an Index sub-menu or as a 78-minute whole. Between Scott’s full film school curriculum of a chat track and the exhausting mini-docs you’ll get just about everything you wanted to know about the film’s inception, themes, and production.

Closing things out is a code to download a Digital HD copy of The Counselor to watch on your computer.

Last Words

The Counselor isn’t an easy movie to love if you go into it thinking it’s going to be disposable, glossy Hollywood entertainment. There is nothing typical about this film and it demonstrates why Ridley Scott is a masterful filmmaker and Cormac McCarthy is one of our finest living writers of the literary and the cinematic. It’s Scott’s best film in years, one of the greatest released in 2013, and for the in-depth bonus features and first-rate presentation of both the theatrical and extended cuts this Blu-ray is a must have. Check it out if you’re in the mood for a feature that defies convention to become something greater and more substantial than you might usually expect.

Trailer

  • chris

    people are just so darn dumb. Great review

  • crazedchef

    Well put, I loved the movie.. Very much deep. :=)

  • jeff

    Well, I don’t quite like the movie but I certainly don’t hate it either, as I barely have any feelings about it whatsoever. And from this rather neutral point of view.. I understand the low ratings it’s getting by critics and on the internet. I personally thought Diaz was a bad cast decision, Pitt was entertaining but to me far from the perfect choice as well. The plot was interestingly random and irrelevant, something I’d expect from a Coen brothers movie, but not from Ridley Scott – not a big deal. What is a big deal though (to me anyway) is the existence of a bunch of similarly irrelevant and pretty out of place scenes. Such as Diaz talking to the confessor. Or the late scene involving Dean Norris and the 4th barrel. Or the little subplot with Natalie Dormer that just appeared and had no relevance to anything. Also, generally I don’t mind sexual themes in movies at all – but the relatively extreme focus on sex and gender stereotypes in the movie’s dialogue was daunting and seemed, once again, totally pointless.
    I did enjoy the movie’s pacing, some of the characters and their interaction, as well as the style in general. But to me it just seems to be to the typical Coen flick what Smokin Aces was to the typical Guy Ritchie flick… entertaining and sort of on the right track, but inferior.

  • Ron

    Great discussion of the film, should have read it before seeing it, but will aprreciate it more on the second viewing!

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