Film Review – The Counselor
In an early scene of The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s first work written directly for the screen, a diamond dealer informs the Counselor that the diamond he’s chosen for his fiancée is a cautionary stone. He might as well be describing the film he’s in, and that’s the joke. It’s one of the least effective jokes in this film’s repertoire, but it establishes the film’s self-aware nature, if a little too blatantly. The Counselor, like the aforementioned cautionary diamond, is beautiful, hard-edged, multi-faceted, refractive, and sharp. Many people will be walking into this movie expecting a taut, economical suspense-thriller. They will be disappointed. This film plays like a Greek tragedy, where most of the action happens offstage and what occurs onstage is largely dialogue between two characters. Not that there isn’t any onscreen action. There is, and when it happens, it’s brutal. But this film is more interested in existential and philosophical discussions concerning life, love, fear, death, religion, fate, and morality. If that last sentence turned you off, so will the movie.
The film opens with the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz), beneath white sheets, like bodies in a morgue, whispering fondly to each other before descending into dirty talk. It’s a touching and effective scene, but like Hitchcock did so perfectly in Psycho with its opening shot, it implicates the audience as voyeur to events we have no part in. The Counselor is in a bit of trouble—what kind of trouble remains unstated—but when he approaches his drug-trafficking friend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), to ask if he can take part in a job that carries a payout of twenty million dollars, Reiner knows something’s up. He asks him why he’s interested. When the Counselor responds by smiling and saying it’s just good old-fashioned greed, Reiner says, “No, no. I appealed to your greed two years ago and you wouldn’t budge. You’re in trouble.” The Counselor’s silence speaks volumes.
And so we meet, through the Counselor, the other players: Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s recent girlfriend as well as his tech support, and Westray (Brad Pitt), the middleman between the Counselor and the cartel. Malkina is a fierce and dominant woman. She owns two cheetahs that she enjoys watching hunt quarry, has a cheetah tattoo that starts at her shoulder and extends down her back, and predominantly wears cheetah print. We get it, she likes cheetahs, but there’s a reason: they take down their prey with such grace and precision and technical prowess, it excites her. She’s the one to watch out for. Unfortunately, Diaz is the wrong performer for the part. She excels at comedy, but whenever she plays dramatic roles, especially here, with McCarthy’s hefty dialogue, her mouth can’t quite work its way around the words appropriately and her lines are fumbled and quite off. Lines that are supposed to be delivered with cold menace can come off flat and unconvincing. She nails the look and the cold icy glare, and there are moments when she nails the delivery, but they don’t happen often enough.
Brad Pitt plays Westray effectively as a cocksure cowboy. Westray and Bardem’s Reiner are the two voices of reason warning the Counselor away from this whole mess. In finely crafted dialogue, they speak of the absence of any morality in the Mexican cartels. Reiner speaks of a fiendish device called a bolito that can be quickly slipped over a victim’s head and which has unbreakable gears and an unbreakable wire that slowly but surely closes in on itself, effectively decapitating the victim. We understand the rules of drama, here, especially Chekov’s principle of the loaded gun, and so know that at some point, somewhere, someone’s being garroted. Using the same principle, Westray speaks of snuff films. Not only is it as effective as the bolito speech to foreshadow and to establish a sense of foreboding, but it brings back the motif of voyeurism. As Westray says, the consumer of the product is necessary for its production, and that you can’t watch without being implicated in murder. “Three thousand girls have been kidnapped in the city of Juarez,” he says. “Think about that the next time you snort a line.” The Counselor waves his hands at this: he’s not in this for the drugs—he just wants the money.
Against counsel, the Counselor decides to go in on the deal, and necessarily, things don’t go according to plan. No, things move inexorably, fatalistically to their devastating conclusion. Of course, there isn’t a happy ending. This is Cormac McCarthy, and his nihilism reigns supreme. There is a scene towards the end where the Counselor wanders the Juarez streets and, like a Greek chorus, the families and friends and citizens of Juarez hold up signs protesting the loss of the thousands of women that disappear every year to the cartels. The drug war, like any other war, is catastrophic, unending and boiling over, and it is in the public’s willful avoidance, ignorance, and naïveté that they are implicated and complicit. As one character asserts, “How could you believe you could live in a world and not be a part of it?” This cautionary tale may seem to say that there are consequences to your actions, but the thread goes deeper than that. It cautions us to take action, thoughtful action, or the “slaughter to come will be beyond our imagining.”