THE COUNSELOR Movie Review
To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if a writer introduces a “bolito,” a mechanical garrote, in the first act (via dialogue, no less), then the audience can (and should) rightfully expect to see that device used explicitly (in every sense of the word) in the third act. The Counselor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s (The Road, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian) first produced screenplay, uses the bolito, along with several other devices, to gruesome, lurid effect. This is the end result of immoral, unethical, and illegal decisions — illegal being the least important — from the greed-driven decisions by the unnamed central character (Michael Fassbender) who is simply called the “counselor”, his partner in crime Reiner (Javier Bardem) who is also a flamboyant drug dealer/nightclub owner, and a laconic cartel middleman named Westray (Brad Pitt).
When we meet the Counselor, he’s enjoying some under-the-sheets downtime with his soon-to-be-fiancé, Laura (Penélope Cruz). A practicing Catholic with a naive — and as we soon learn, dangerously naive — view of the world, Laura sees a bright, comfortable future with the Counselor. While she’s dimly aware that the Counselor’s work as a criminal attorney has put him in the company of unsavory men, she doesn’t give it a second thought, preferring willful ignorance or blindness to the cold light of truth. The Counselor doesn’t share Laura’s naivete, but he shares her willful ignorance. When, due to an unspecified financial setback, he sets aside his moral qualms (if any) and legal concerns, not to mention Reiner and Westray’s advice to proceed with caution, and enters into a multi-million dollar drug deal with Reiner and Westray, he closes his mind to the violence and brutality necessary on the other side of the border to make the deal happen.
Predictably, the drug deal goes sideways, but not due to anything the Counselor, Reiner, or Westray do deliberately or even inadvertently. Instead, the deal goes wrong due to a coincidence – the Counselor doing a favor for a death-row inmate, Ruth (Rosie Perez), who he’s assisting pro bono on an appeal. Casually, even thoughtlessly made, the favor links the Counselor and everyone associated with him, first to a murder — the first of several gruesome, lurid deaths, a McCarthy specialty — and later to the hijacking of the truck carrying the drugs over the border. The cartel, we’re told, doesn’t believe in coincidences and responds accordingly. For McCarthy, coincidence and fate are inextricable. They might be even identical. Turning the title upside down, the Counselor spends most of the film’s running time looking for a way out, periodically seeking counsel of his own to find a solution that spares his life and the lives of others in his orbit (specifically Laura).
The Counselor can be described variously as a noir-inflected crime-thriller, a cautionary tale, a morality play, and an oblique critique of the War on Drugs and the consequent south-of-the-border drug wars. The Counselor succeeds at one or two, maybe three of those elements (cautionary tale, morality play, political critique), but fails at the other (crime-thriller), ultimately making for an unsatisfying film. Then again, that’s exactly what McCarthy and director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Gladiator, Thelma & Louise, Blade Runner, Alien) obviously wanted. Neither was content with simply making a well-crafted throwback crime-thriller. They aimed for something closer to last year’s Andrew Dominik-directed crime-drama, Killing Them Softly, a film, perhaps not coincidentally, that featured Brad Pitt as a verbose, philosophical hitman.
Like Killing Them Softly, practically every character in The Counselor has a philosophical bent. They love nothing more than to talk and expound on whatever ideas cross their mind. Reiner’s ostentatious lifestyle and garrulous charms belie a hard-eyed recognition that no long-term good will come from working with Mexican drug cartels. He sees death in his future and he’s probably right. His girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), epitomizes something else entirely: a rapacious predator certainly (signposted by the two cheetahs she keeps as pets and related tattoos), but more importantly, a cunning, super-smart sociopath. Given the circumstances where everyone is a sociopath or morally compromised, the smartest sociopath is the likeliest to survive. It’s a bleak, nihilistic worldview, one anyone familiar with McCarthy’s previous novels or film adaptations knows (or should know) well.
In general, that bleak, nihilistic worldview — tinged, as it was, with Old Testament-style Biblical wrath — helped to bring awards recognition and commercial success to No Country for Old Men, but No Country for Old Men was, at least until its final, devastating moments, a crime-thriller — albeit a crime-thriller with literary ambitions, ambitions ably turned into cinematic ones by the Coen Brothers. The Counselor may succeed on a thematic level (and even that’s questionable), but it unreservedly fails on a narrative one. In theory, slow burn and slow-build(ing) plots aren’t problematic. In the real/reel world, they can be, however, and The Counselor is a perfect example. Scott indulges McCarthy’s penchant for better read than heard dialogue scenes, haphazardly introduces new characters, cross-cuts between characters and scenes without drawing visual connections between them, and ultimately gets lost in an over-convoluted, overstuffed plot. It’s the work of a mastermind-level character that, on reflection, is nothing less than risible or ridiculous, a device or trick without any emotional resonance (unlike, say, No Country for Old Men).