First, let me be clear – I use the American ‘counselor’ here (rather than ‘counsellor’, for those of you playing at home) because that’s technically the spelling under which the film is marketed, even in Australia. My faithful auto-correct adds a second ‘l’ every time, which I dutifully remove. But, more than that, it’s out of respect that I am willing to brutalise my own language – respect for Cormac McCarthy’s incredible screenplay, Ridley Scott’s slick direction and a cast of absolutely riveting performances.
The Counselor refers to its titular character (played by Michael Fassbender), a lawyer whose clients include heavy players in the drug trafficking underworld. He’s holed up in Juárez, Mexico, where he intends to propose to Laura (Penélope Cruz), a woman with whom he is completely besotted. But while he appears happy and lovestruck, the Counselor is also in way over his head – desperate for money, he has bought into a twenty million dollar drug deal with his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem) to bring cocaine across the border into America. Another of his contacts, Westray (Brad Pitt), warns him of the potential consequences of doing business with Mexican cartels – who aren’t, as it turns out, very nice people – but still he commits to the deal. And when Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) makes her own play for the drugs, the situation quickly disintegrates.
A plot like this might lead you to imagine The Counselor as a thriller, and I suppose that’s the closest approximation of its genre. But this is also a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the architect of narratives such as The Road and No Country For Old Men – these criminals don’t just plot and kill each other. They talk about it. They philosophise at great length. They tell anecdotes and fables. They ruminate on the very meaning of death, love and human nature, and they offer whatever perverse homespun wisdom they have gathered from a lifetime in their bloody trade.
McCarthy’s dialogue is very much front and centre here; the movie is really mapped out as a series of meandering, often deeply intimate conversations between two people. Most of the time, it’s the Counselor himself being counselled, as he seeks help and advice from all manner of shady characters to find some hope of escaping his deadly predicament. But, as Westray observes, you don’t really know someone until you know what they want, and the extended interaction between these characters is all designed to offer some insight into their fears, their desires and their motives.
Every line is laden with wit and metaphor – one early scene, in which the Counselor chooses a diamond for Laura’s engagement ring, quickly becomes a philosophical discussion of people rather than gemstones, and how they too are defined and made oddly beautiful by their imperfections. Malkina, while sunbathing with Laura, curiously examines her devout Catholicism and regular confessions to her priest, observing the futility of seeking forgiveness for sins she has every intention of recommitting. (She later goes to confessional herself, just to try it, in one of the film’s more comical scenes.)
The Counselor features one of the most accomplished casts I’ve seen in years; Fassbender, Cruz, Bardem, Diaz and Pitt are all stellar in their roles. Brad Pitt probably has the easiest time – he was born to play the smooth-talking criminal, as we all know. Michael Fassbender’s complete emotional breakdown as the Counselor is heart-wrenching, Javier Bardem plays edgy/crazy like a pro, and Penélope Cruz, even as the most reserved and innocent character in the film, is still mesmerising.
But it’s Cameron Diaz who offers the most surprising performance of all. She’s absolutely incredible as Malkina – cold, sexy, wild, unpredictable, manipulative, dangerous, and an absolute sociopath. She captivates you in every frame she’s on screen. And she’s the true victor of the movie, a predator who hunts her mark with unflinching determination. And, she presents arguably the very best scene of the entire film, in which she quite literally fucks Reiner’s car. Yes, you read that correctly.
Ridley Scott handles all of this material more than capably – the film’s cinematography is slick and polished, whether it’s the dirty, sun-scorched vistas of Juárez, the rainy riverfront of Amsterdam or the metropolitan sheen of London. The action sequences, where they occur, are extremely visceral. I realised, during a shootout on a desert road, that I’ve never seen a movie that so accurately captures the ‘weight’ of gunfire, the palpable thud of each bullet as it strikes metal and flesh.
Still, if you’re looking for something fast-paced and action-packed, this is probably not the film you’re after. The film certainly does gain momentum, slowly but surely, as its narrative progresses; simmering beneath each conversation is an underlying sense of danger, a tension that builds and builds relentlessly as each player becomes more desperate for his own survival.
It feels, at times, much like a Tarantino film, where a single scene is drawn out for near agonising periods, escalating little by little until the tension is absolutely unbearable, at which point (were this a Tarantino film) everyone in the room would draw a revolver/samurai sword and shoot/eviscerate each other. The Counselor’s moments of violence, however, are less copious, few and far enough between that each stands as a shocking moment of punctuation in an otherwise contemplative dialogue.
Where is occurs, though, the violence is every bit as brutal. Mexican drug cartels are ruthless people, as Reiner is quick to point out, and they know the nature of death – it’s business, and not something to be taken personally. Their methods are designed to make a statement, and nothing does it so grandly as the ‘bolita’, an automated wire snare that tightens itself around a man’s neck until his head rips clean off. Latin people. So flamboyant.
In its theme and tone, however, the film is absolutely nothing like a Tarantino production. Tarantino breaks his characters to redeem them, to see them rise gloriously from the ashes of their loss and take jubilant revenge. McCarthy breaks his characters simply to see them broken, to show us that life is cruel and barren, and that we will forever carry the suffering borne of our own mistakes.
Be warned – The Counselor is, at heart, a work of absolute nihilism. This is not a film that entertains the possibility of redemption, or seeks to curtail its grisliness with a surprising twist. It’s a film about resignation, about inevitability, about accepting the consequences of our actions, no matter how brutal. But it’s also the work of a literary master, and if you’re willing to engage with McCarthy’s brilliantly penned dialogue, you’ll find it to be an utterly intoxicating experience.