You might be tempted to see The Counselor because of the amazing cast — Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and more.
But know that the film is grim. Very grim. Not in the sanitized, fun, action-movie sort of way that you might expect from Ridley Scott, but in the serious, bleak, horrible way that you would expect from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and now screenwriter Cormac McCarthy.
R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a lawyer, who is referred to only as “Counselor.” He invites trouble when a client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), lines up a well-paying job for a Mexican drug cartel.
Bardem’s performance glows with life-loving energy. His character has all the money he could want; he hosts fabulous parties in his fabulous mansion attended only by beautiful people. His latest of many girlfriends is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who owns two pet Cheetahs which they take hunting out in the desert. Malkina herself has cheetah spots tattooed down her shoulder and back. She’s the kind of woman who knows the value of a diamond.
Counselor seems to be doing pretty well for himself. He drives a Bentley, dresses well, sips champagne at the polo club — he even travels to Amsterdam to pick out a diamond with which to propose. His girlfriend is Laura (Penelope Cruz), a naïve and innocent woman, especially when paired in a scene with Diaz’ Malkina.
Nevertheless, Counselor has money troubles somewhere, because he asks for the dirty job. He’s told to seek out Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges the details. Westray makes a convincing case against getting involved with the cartels. He himself is willing to take the risk because there is nothing in his life he can’t walk away from. A man like Counselor, however, might not be prepared for a life in hiding.
The other main character is a tanker truck loaded with sewage to hide the barrels of illegal drugs. It begins the film in Mexico and makes its slow way across the border, changing hands many times, on its way to its destination, somewhere in the U.S.
More Cormac than Ridley
There is more Cormac McCarthy than Ridley Scott in The Counselor. Start with the tone, which is not so much thrilling as horrifying. The film has a disturbing fascination with decapitations. Maybe that just goes with the territory of Mexcian drug cartels, but it can be pretty off-putting.
Maybe the horrific thoughts of death are amplified by the relative naiveté of the handsome couple we meet under the sheets in the opening scene. Cruz and Fassbender each have a scene in the film of utter sincerity that most big-budget films wouldn’t touch. I’d expect irony and lust from Hollywood, but not sincerity. Cruz and Fassbender each deliver real tears in different scenes that are very moving in different ways.
The Counselor also offers heavy dialogue in dialogue-heavy scenes. Characters speak about philosophical issues that go far beyond the action on-screen. A scene late in the film introduces us to a boss in the cartel (Rubén Blades) speaking at length to Counselor about grief, framed in a philosophy I couldn’t put a name to. He says, in so many words, that grief is a powerful debt, yet worthless as an asset; that acceptance is to be valued and strived for; with no room for hope, justice, altruism, or any other forward-looking virtue. If you recall Tommy Lee Jones’ closing monologue in No Country for Old Men, you’ll recognize the formal, oddly literary speech.
Many of the characters get some sort of McCarthy-esque speech. Bruno Ganz, the Amsterdam jeweler, has a more positive monologue, while Brad Pitt’s is more resigned and stoic. Unfortunately, Diaz’s character gets about two of these monologues, and she can’t sell her lines at all. She does manage to show, by comparison, just how strong the rest of the cast is.
Pitt’s best scene is when he goes through the motions of trying to dissuade Counselor from taking the job. He realizes it’s not his place to insist, but the look of concern — without explicitly warning what’s in store — is chilling.
Bardem’s joie de vivre steals nearly every scene he’s in, especially his confession to Counselor of a sexual encounter with Malkina that seemed to really vex him — and by extension the audience. “It was too gynecological to be sexy,” he says.
Even the minor characters get to shine for a scene or two. Dean Norris (Hank in Breaking Bad) shares a scene — one of the few played for morbid laughs — with John Leguizamo and Carlos Julio Molina in which they check the contents of the septic truck. Édgar Ramírez plays a priest who has to put up with non-Catholic Malkina trying to make a confession.
But most of The Counselor is bleak, not fun — even if you have a morbid sense of humor. Other movies based on McCarthy’s work such as The Road and No Country for Old Men were bleak, but at least they were bleak compared to a sensible, moral world.
Closing as it does on the hopeless philosophy peddled by the cartel boss, The Counselor leaves you more depressed than energized, more hopeless than optimistic. It feels nihilistic, even for Cormac McCarthy.