A high-level cartel lawyer with dirty hands who is known only as "The Counselor" and his girlfriend Laura are talking sexily in bed. Meanwhile, somewhere in Mexico, cocaine is packaged in barrels and concealed in a sewage truck, driven across the border and stored at a sewage treatment plant. After the Counselor goes to Amsterdam to meet with a diamond dealer to purchase an engagement ring for Laura, he proposes and she accepts. At a party back in Texas thrown by Reiner and girlfriend Malkina, a former call-girl with a greedy lust for money, the Counselor discusses a nightclub he and Reiner intend to run, as well as an upcoming drug deal, which would be his first.
The Counselor meets with Westray, a business associate of Reiner's. He hears of the deal's 4000-percent return rate, but Westray warns the Counselor about becoming involved, saying that Mexican cartels are merciless. The Counselor remains outwardly confident and unconcerned. Malkina gains knowledge of the deal through her access to Reiner and by conveniently overhearing various intercoms in Reiner's home. Reiner describes an execution device called "the bolito" which gradually strangles and decapitates the victim. Reiner also tells the Counselor how disturbed and oddly aroused he was from an incident where he witnessed Malkina masturbate with his Ferrari California's windshield.
The Counselor visits a client, a prison inmate named Ruth who is on trial for murder. Ruth's son is a biker and a valued drug cartel member known as "the Green Hornet", recently arrested for speeding. The Counselor agrees to bail him out of jail. Malkina senses an opportunity to undermine the Counselor's upcoming deal and to profit for herself. She employs "the Wireman" to steal the drugs. He decapitates the biker, Ruth's recently released son, with a wire stretched across the highway. Then the Wireman steals the truck containing the cocaine. Learning of the theft, Westray meets with the Counselor to notify him that the biker is dead and the cocaine stolen, bleakly intoning the Counselor's culpability. Westray says he is leaving town immediately and suggests the Counselor do the same. Westray explains that the cartel's ruthlessness extends to creating "snuff films" where murder victims are filmed having necrophilia performed on them on camera. The Counselor makes an urgent call to Laura, arranging to meet her in another state, where he will explain.
The cartel has learned that the Counselor bailed out the Green Hornet, which appears as suspicious timing and fully blameworthy for the punitive purposes of the cartel. In Texas, two cartel members pretending to be police officers pull over the Wireman and his accomplice, killing both and also gunning down an innocent driver who comes upon the scene. Reiner is accidentally killed by cartel members while they are attempting to capture him. The cartel then kidnaps Laura. In a last-ditch effort, The Counselor contacts Jefe, a high-ranking cartel member, for suggestions on what to do next. Jefe darkly and mordantly advises the Counselor to resign himself irrevocably to the choices he made long beforehand, speaking philosophically, citing the life and poetry of Antonio Machado to underline his advice. The Counselor goes to Mexico, hoping to find and rescue Laura there. A package is slipped under the door of his hotel room and in it he finds a DVD with "Hola!" written on it, breaking down in heavy sobs at the awareness that the disk likely contains a snuff film of Laura sent by the cartel. In an unnamed location, Laura's body is dumped into a landfill.
Malkina's failed effort to steal the drugs does not deter her. She tracks Westray to London, where she hires a blonde woman to seduce him and steal his bank codes. She then has accomplices steal Westray's laptop, and he is killed with the "bolito" device that Reiner had previously described. Malkina then meets her banker at a restaurant, coolly explaining how she wants her profits and accounts to be handled.Michael Fassbender as The Counselor
Cameron Diaz as Malkina
Javier Bardem as Reiner
Penélope Cruz as Laura
Brad Pitt as Westray
Rosie Perez as Ruth
Richard Cabral as the Young Man/the Green Hornet
Natalie Dormer as the Blonde
Édgar Ramírez as the Priest
Bruno Ganz as the Diamond Dealer
Rubén Blades as Jefe
Goran Višnjić as Michael
Velibor Topic as Sedan Man
Toby Kebbell as Tony
Emma Rigby as Tony's girlfriend
John Leguizamo as Randy
Dean Norris as the Buyer
Donna Air as the Chauffeur
Fernando Cayo as Abogado Hernandez
Sam Spruell as Jaime "the Wireman"
Richard Brake as the Wireman's accomplice
Alex Hafner as the Highway Patrolman
On January 18, 2012, it was reported that novelist Cormac McCarthy had sold his first spec script, The Counselor, to Nick Wechsler, Steve Schwartz and Paula Mae Schwartz, who had previously produced the film adaptation of McCarthy's novel The Road. On January 31, it was reported that Ridley Scott was currently considering several directorial projects, but that there was a strong possibility that The Counselor would be his next film and his follow-up to Prometheus. On February 9, it was confirmed that Scott would direct. Scott also became a producer. Cormac McCarthy, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer and Michael Costigan are executive producers.
Principal photography began on July 27, 2012 in London. The film was also shot in Spain and the United States. On August 20, 2012, Scott halted production of the film due to his brother Tony's death. He canceled that week's shoot in order to travel to Los Angeles to be with his brother's family. Scott returned to London to resume production on September 3.
The film was dedicated to the memory of Tony Scott, who had taken his own life during production, and Matt Baker, the second assistant director on the film who had since died. Only the Baker dedication is seen onscreen, however.
The first teaser trailer was released June 25, 2013.
Costume designer Janty Yates collaborated with Giorgio Armani on the film as a part of a new partnership between Armani and 20th Century Fox that also extends into retail and digital initiatives. Armani was enlisted to create the wardrobes for the characters portrayed by Michael Fassbender and Penélope Cruz. In addition to Armani, designer Paula Thomas also contributed to the film's wardrobe by dressing Cameron Diaz's character, Malkina, with roughly 15 different outfits. "[It wasn't until] I read the script that I realized why [Scott] called upon me," said Thomas. "[Cameron's] character has a lot of elements of a Thomas Wylde woman. [She's] bold, edgy, modern. She's about wanting to be seen, as opposed to blending into the background."
For Javier Bardem's character, Yates applied a widely colorful wardrobe that was mostly made up of pieces of Versace. As for Bardem's hair, the idea was the actor's own and inspired by film producer Brian Grazer's hairdo.
The film score to The Counselor was composed by Daniel Pemberton. Pemberton recorded the score with a full orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in addition to integrating home-recorded guitar noises and textures. "Ridley responds really well to interesting and unusual sounds," explained Pemberton on the composer-director relationship. "So as a composer who likes making unusual sounds, that's exciting. It was daunting but he was great to work with and up for experimenting. [...] He made the process a lot less scary than it should have been." A soundtrack album was released digitally on October 22 and in physical forms on November 11, 2013 by Milan Records.McCarthy, Cormac (June 10–17, 2013). "Scenes of the crime". The New Yorker. 89 (17): 66–69.
Preliminary reports had The Counselor tracking for an $8.6–$13 million debut in North America. The film opened to $3.2 million in 3,336 locations on Friday and opened at #4 in the box office with just a cumulative $7,842,930 over the weekend.
The film received mostly negative reviews with a 35% approval rating on review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 199 reviews, with an average score of 5 out of 10. The consensus states: "The Counselor raises expectations with its talented cast and creative crew—then subverts them with a wordy and clumsy suspense thriller that's mercilessly short on suspense or thrills." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 48 based on 42 reviews, considered to be "mixed or average reviews". It received a very negative grade of a "D" from market-research firm CinemaScore.
Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter gave a negative review, calling it "not a very likable or gratifying film," adding that "one is left with a very bleak ending and an only slightly less depressing sense of the waste of a lot of fine talent both behind and in front of the camera." Mark Kermode listed it as number two on his Ten Worst Films of 2013. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan stated, "As cold, precise and soulless as the diamonds that figure briefly in its plot, The Counselor is an extremely unpleasant piece of business." Peter Debruge of Variety criticized Cormac McCarthy's script, saying that his "first original script is nearly all dialogue, but it's a lousy story, ineptly constructed and rendered far too difficult to follow."
Conversely, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars out of four, saying "director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy have fashioned a sexy, sometimes shockingly violent, literate and richly textured tale of the Shakespearean consequences of one man's irrevocable act of avarice" and called it "a bloody great time." In addition, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times gave it a rave review, stating that "Mr. McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life [...] That's a compliment." Danny Leigh of the BBC programme Film 2013 praised the film, saying that "the real star is the script. What this film really is is a Cormac McCarthy audiobook with visuals by Ridley Scott. It's black as night, engrossing and masterful." He also acclaimed the performances, particularly Diaz's, and said, with regard to the negative reviews, "Movie history is littered with films that we all sneered at and we all laughed at and we all thought were terrible and the critics hated them and no-one went to see them, and then 40 years later they fetch up on programmes like this with everyone saying 'what a masterpiece!'"
Scott Foundas, critic for Variety, wrote a defense of the film titled "Why The Counselor Is One of Ridley Scott's Best Films" in which he compared it to John Boorman's Point Blank and the screenplay to the work of David Mamet, Harold Pinter, and Quentin Tarantino. Foundas writes, "[the film] is bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays."