At the time of its release, Ridley Scott’s 2013 crime thriller The Counselor was crushed by the weight of lofty expectations. This was, after all, the first and only original screenplay penned by novelist Cormac McCarthy, and was shepherded to the big screen by one of the most celebrated working directors alive. But the film’s uncharacteristic strangeness and weapons grade fatalism hurt it at the box office and with critics. Nearly a decade later, and with the benefit of an extended cut buoyed by 20 more minutes of footage and variations in the edit and pace, it’s now clear that this was the best film Scott had made in decades.

The Counselor follows an unnamed litigator (Michael Fassbender) as he navigates a crooked business deal across the border from his Texas home to the cartels in Mexico. Everyone but the counselor, from his club owning partner Reiner (a delightfully unhinged Javier Bardem) to his go-between Westray (Brad Pitt), knows how potentially ruinous this venture is all but destined to be. This creates a stomach-churning sense of inevitability as the audience watches and waits for the smirking city slicker to realize how deep the shit is once he begins to whiff it well above waist height.

Hollywood has given us no shortage of cartel-based crime dramas, each with varying degrees of stylization, moral viewpoint and political perspective. But the same quality that made The Counselor so hard to stomach–the mixture of McCarthy’s cowboy navel-gazing and Scott’s insistence to play things both perfectly straight and absolutely absurd–makes it stand out from the filmmaker’s storied and wildly inconsistent filmography.

Scott was in the midst of production on this film when his brother, the equally vital if less critically acclaimed Tony Scott, committed suicide. Ridley Scott had to shoot and edit the rest of this feature throughout that grieving process, ultimately dedicating the film to his brother’s memory. It’s difficult not to see the specter of that loss hang over The Counselor, but not to the detriment of the film.

Prestige, or at least the appearance of it, had always set the two Scott brothers apart. Ridley may have more inarguable classics like Alien and Blade Runner, but the chasms between his high points are hit-or-miss troughs that drag his career batting average down considerably. On the other hand, Tony always knew how to have more fun and to take more risks while remaining largely commercial in his scope and output. He was the wilder one, for sure, but his work had a dynamism, and occasionally, an artful sleaziness, that Ridley’s more staid, formalist approach couldn’t compete with.

Watching The Counselor again, one cannot help but see shades of Tony’s 1990 thriller Revenge, with its unique blend of gauche brutality and studio picture gloss. But where Tony turned the Bruckheimer aesthetic into the music video version of a snuff film, Ridley maintains his poise. McCarthy’s script is principally concerned with the brusque distillation of how doomed society is and how our primalism is barely masked by the careful curation of normalcy signifiers keeping that reality at bay. Ridley captures that by lensing a world that looks like a reserved perfume ad, but filmed with an emotional distance that makes that beauty, that surface, utterly uncomfortable to watch.

Scott and cinematographer Darius Wolski frame these familiar cityscapes and desert roads with clinical precision to establish the well-worn genre, but it’s in the medium close-ups of their preternaturally gorgeous performers that the real work is done. McCarthy is less concerned with traditional Hollywood characterization than he is reducing every player into a philosophical viewpoint and a tether to material obsessions. As such, the best, most memorable moments within the film (save for the nail-biting, crowd pleasing “bolito” sequence) all exist as deliberate, occasionally awkward line readings.

It’s in those moments, when a character breaks the dramatic throughline of a scene, that Ridley Scott’s pedigree goes to work. The camera may be placed in a position that makes the staging feel off-kilter or too flat, until a minor cut and a blocking change reveal that he’s got your eyes trained in the exact spot to receive someone’s internal thesis as they speak it, not so much to the audience or even other characters, but to themselves. The technique gives the quality of reading a chapter of a book, only to have a character turn to you and open the inside of their mind, however briefly.

That’s where so much of the film’s dramatic power lies. In resisting the urge to show the audience the biblical violence at the core of the cartel’s operation, Scott relies on supporting characters to discuss such atrocities casually in conversation, such that when events imply those atrocities to occur offscreen to characters we’ve gotten to know, the effect is damning.

The Counselor’s subversion is subtle even when its plot is old hat and its themes are broad. It’s a beautifully photographed yet unnerving genre exercise housing more impressive and affecting filmmaking than many of its director’s more ambitious and successful works. It is absolutely essential viewing.

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