Film Review: The Counselor
The fullest and most fearsome filmic expression of McCarthy’s deeply pessimistic vision.
Published: October 30, 2013
Directed by Ridley Scott
At the moment you face death at the hands of a drug cartel for a deal gone wrong, you probably have this horrible realization that the story you thought was your own is really about other people altogether and that you are just a bit player. The movement toward that realization is, in short, the plot of The Counselor, the film written by novelist Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott.
It begins with the titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his soon-to-be fiancé (Penélope Cruz) in bed. He’s a smooth guy, not only in bed but also on the streets of El Paso, Amsterdam, and other cities where a number of his associates are involved with the Juárez cartel, including Westray (Brad Pitt) and the excellently depraved Reiner (Javier Bardem). Reiner has helped the Counselor—who says his back is against the wall—invest in a drug shipment headed to Chicago (which adds a nice real-world touch, since that city just declared Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Public Enemy No. 1). The Counselor, as he is always called, doesn’t have to do anything beyond his initial investment, but that doesn’t mean there is no risk. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that something goes wrong.
The fascinating thing about this movie, which builds up tension with ominous philosophical dialogue rather than action sequences, is that most of the main characters have nothing to do with the mishap or the lost drugs. But that doesn’t matter to the faceless men who must, as a matter of principle, make the Counselor, Reiner, and Westray pay.
So the story of The Counselor is not really the Counselor’s at all; his life is not really his life anymore. He once had free will, but once he chose to enter this new world, his old life and its rules evaporated and he became trapped in a horrifying new world, an inexorable machine whose logic must play out.
If it is excruciatingly obvious how little control the Counselor has over his own story, Malkina, Reiner’s ostensible lover (ferociously played by Cameron Diaz), demonstrates what kind of nerve it takes to control one’s fate in this savage world. Her fascination with large cats—she loves to sit in the desert and watch them chase down jackrabbits—shows that she is somehow of a different, more primitive order than the other, seemingly more civilized characters. And yet, because of this wild cunning, she alone seems to have a grip on her situation. Diaz gives a stunning, startling performance that makes everything else she’s ever done seem small and paltry. Yes, she fucks the windshield of a Ferrari in a scene where Bardem’s character describes her waxed vagina as “one of those catfish things. One of those bottom-feeders you see going up the side of the aquarium,” but that’s just a small detail that ends up as one brick in the monumental facade of one of the more gracefully wicked characters to grace the screen in years.
It is easy to see why so many people hate The Counselor, which ends where most movies would really take off, as if it were Goddard trying to do Peckinpah or vice versa. But it is the fullest and most fearsome filmic expression of McCarthy’s deeply pessimistic vision. Despite the putative grimness of The Road and the demonic nature of No Country for Old Men, they are hopeful romances compared to The Counselor. Beneath the desperate brutality of The Road, there is a spark of human goodness. The Counselor is much more like Blood Meridian, where the scenario is reversed: All of our laws and civility are not so different than the cold, calculating cruelty that sees torture as a matter of business not passion.
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