First published here.
This brutally lean story about a drug deal gone wrong on the US-Mexican border has been greeted almost uniformly by scorn. The astonishingly poor reception reveals less about Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott’s quite extraordinary movie than about the mood in which much film reviewing must apparently take place.
The Counselor so obviously invites sustained consideration that its immediate and doubtless dismissal by so many critics can’t help but betray their general lack of self-confidence. This lack can be seen in their apparent need to hold on with white knuckles to a pre-determined position of critical superiority, one from which they must insist against all odds that they know better than the movie, and therefore have the grave responsibility of instructing the film in its nature and failings, which are measured against an implicit normalised ideal that the filmmakers in question have been too blindly incompetent to properly realise.
Although some people seem to think McCarthy’s script is wilfully obtuse, the story is simple enough. We begin with a burgeoning romance between a successful El Paso lawyer, the unnamed Counselor (Michael Fassbender), and a beautiful woman (Penélope Cruz). Alongside this romance, we quickly learn that the Counselor is already involved in a risky business plan with a rich and exotic associate, Reiner (Javier Bardem), who relaxes with his lover (Cameron Diaz) by watching their pet cheetahs chase down rabbits in the desert.
Working with a shadowy middleman (Pitt, a luxury cowboy), the Counselor will fund a scheme to smuggle $20 million worth of cocaine from Juárez to Chicago. The shipment is hijacked, and the drugs go missing. Inevitably, the cartel blame the newest and least well-known link in their chain, and seek to exact the kind of baroque revenge that is now sadly familiar from the appalling headlines of the Mexican drug wars.
Despite the straightforwardness of its caper-gone-wrong, ‘one last job’ storyline, The Counselor turns out to be very strange in many ways. But rather than being its fault, the movie’s multi-faceted eccentricity makes it a unique, beguiling thing that deserves to be wondered about.
What’s immediately worth noticing is how McCarthy and Scott are both clearly uninterested in the potentially suspenseful and mysterious intrigues of betrayal that power their story. This deliberate disinterest in the more pulse-driving aspects of the material is worth noticing because it’s led to some of the more pathetically blind and unforgivably dull judgments against the movie, for its failure to meet the criteria of a theme park ride; that is to say, its sin of being a ‘thriller that doesn’t thrill.’ It doesn’t seem to have occurred to such writers that this suggests the movie is therefore not trying to be a thriller at all.
What we get instead is magnificent richness of place, architecture, voice, language, texture, sound, light, and the compelling being of a wonderful roster of actors and people in all parts, everything seemingly organised around the tension between smooth sheens and filth, within which the movie negotiates what a wasteland can look and feel like, and the different ways we can find to live in one, or to escape it by, in the telling words of one character, “living in the world without being in it.” The movie finds more at stake here than ‘who fucked-over who’ by handling its pulp to give a transcendent cosmic dimension to human affairs that are at once ordinary (merely commercial) and extreme (ruthlessly murderous).
The compelling centres of it all are the conversations. They are an often-terrifying delight, flirting dangerously with our credulity, while allowing us to admire the meeting of McCarthy’s genius for writing words with the talent these actors possess for giving them voice. None soar higher than the Counselor’s long phone call with an elegant cartel heavyweight, played by Rubén Blades, his cadences and rhythms perfectly patient in outlining metaphysical inevitability to a man who won’t face it.
So we should take this as notice that McCarthy and Scott are fascinated less by getting our pulses up (with the exception of two horrifying sequences as the cards start to fall), and more by images of people talking to each other, conversations that of course take place in, and part of their meaning from, meticulously selected, framed, and presented architectures and spaces.
The wonder here is in language and its handling. There is obsessive repetition of certain words, phrases: around remembering, forgetting, writing things down, keeping them in your head, knowing, not knowing, wilfully refusing to know (facts, other people, yourself). The Counselor is constantly referred to by that title alone, which highlights the further obviousness that he is the one character never in a position to provide counsel. Instead he is the one repeatedly told that he cannot be given advice, because he won’t listen or will refuse to understand. The most pointed Fassbender’s character ever gets with language is making a humiliating joke of an imprisoned woman. He is everywhere else oblivious to his use of words and the world it builds for him to live in. Notice two small occasions, without any other point, in which by someone else’s trick of syntax he unwittingly refers to the woman he claims to love as “it.”
It’s from words like these that the tracks are laid to what Diaz’s character calls, in a hint not only to her near-satanic capacity for foresight but also to the movie’s apocalyptic cosmic vision, “the slaughter to come.”