20th Century Fox
Fassbender stars as the eponymous Counselor, a character so generic that the movie doesn't even give him a name, the wry joke being that all Fassbender's character ever seems to do is ask others for counsel in the film. That's because he's seriously out of his element after getting involved in a $20 million drug deal with a Mexican cartel that goes horribly awry. Unlike his past films, for example "Shame," this isn't "a Michael Fassbender movie" that rests on a compelling central performance, unless coming to grips with the fact that there's nothing he can do to change his fate counts as a compelling character arc for you. As far as star vehicles go though, Fassbender showed more personality playing a robot in "Prometheus."
His main contribution: Crying, attempting a Texas accent.
This isn't the first time Bardem has played a character with a bad haircut and a fascination with baroque weaponry in a Cormac McCarthy movie. But as Reiner, the club magnate who acts as the Counselor's introduction into the drug-trafficking trade, Bardem's talents feel just as underutilized as Fassbender's. When he's on-screen, he's a blast to watch, though that's as much thanks to the movie's costume department as it is to Bardem. But unlike in "No Country for Old Men" where Bardem drove the plot, here he just mopes around bored and disinterested as the plot twists and turns all around him.
His main contribution: Loud shirts, spiky hair, and foreshadowing the "bolito," a sort of "set it and forget it" gadget for gangland decapitation.
Pitt doesn't get a ton of screen time in "The Counselor," but then again, he's never needed much to make a strong impression. As the middleman in Reiner and the Counselor's drug deal, Westray essentially functions as foreshadowing, warning Fassbender's character about the dangers of getting involved with the cartels, and then popping back up to say "I told you so," albeit in significantly more words. But it's Brad Pitt, so even when he's reduced to delivering expository dialogue via overblown metaphors, he's still effortlessly entertaining.
His main contribution: Being Brad Pitt, and another one that's too good to spoil.
As the Counselor's fiancée, Laura, Cruz's role is even smaller than Pitt's, only mattering as potential collateral damage in a deal gone wrong. She's the lone innocent in a movie full of predators, and plays her Madonna role expertly. In fact, her understated acting in the scene where Fassbender's character proposes is so impressive, it's a shame that Scott and McCarthy didn't figure out some way to feature her more. Instead, she's just another casualty of the finite amount of screen time available in an A-list ensemble movie like this.
Her main contribution: Another pretty face for the movie poster.
In case you couldn't tell that Malkina, Diaz's Machievellian villain, is a sexual predator, the multiple overt shots of her cheetah print tattoos help drive the metaphor home. As Reiner's icy girlfriend, her idea of a good time is making a priest squirm in his confessional booth. Diaz has the most trouble delivering McCarthy's monologues, but the real problem with Malkina is the same one most of the characters in "The Counselor" suffer from: there's no discernible motivation behind their actions besides some amorphous concept of "greed."
Her main contribution: One of the most amazingly bizarre sex scenes in recent memory.
Scott isn't quite as bulletproof these days, but much like "Prometheus" before it, "The Counselor" seemed to have all the right elements in place for a return to glory for the director. And make no mistake, the movie looks (and sounds) fantastic. But for all its formal brilliance, Scott fails to blend McCarthy's dark fatalism with a suitable payoff. As a series of gorgeously-filmed vignettes (most notably, the cartel version of a NASCAR pit stop), "The Counselor" is certainly enjoyable in pieces, but never quite comes together as a satisfying whole.
His main contribution: Not making "Blade Runner 2" instead.
As the legendary author's first original screenplay after several high-profile adaptations, "The Counselor" is very much "a Cormac McCarthy movie," despite the litany of other A-list talent attached to the film. Preoccupied with an evil that can't be reasoned with or stopped, characters pop in and out to interrupt the elaborate violence with long pseudo-philosophical monologues. But despite McCarthy's odd preoccupation with explicitly foreshadowing the movie's decapitations and emotional carnage, "The Counselor" is a crime thriller without many thrills. All the action was set in motion long before the opening credits, and thanks to a meaningless coincidence, it's too late for anyone to stop the bleak end that the movie is headed for. Not McCarthy, not Scott, and certainly not Fassbender's Counselor. Instead, much like Reiner's bolito, the plot just tightens and tightens around the characters' necks until it cuts their heads off, either literally or figuratively.
His main contribution: A story that's more interesting to talk about than it is to watch.
"The Counselor" opens in theatres on October 25.