Written by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Ridley Scott
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In his later years, the novelist Cormac McCarthy has circled like a vulture around the theme of death, specifically its inevitable grip on humanity. No Country for Old Men and The Road presented very different worlds, both filled with men trying desperately to withstand the inexorable hand of the reaper, and eventually realizing that there wasn’t much left but to give into what comes for us all. Such an existential fear is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the foundation of McCarthy’s newest foray, his screenplay for the crime thriller The Counselor. Its director is the prolific Ridley Scott, and its cast is impressively stacked, but this is a McCarthy story through and through, which is mostly heartening news.
Michael Fassbender, the best part of Scott’s last film, Prometheus, plays the title character (never referred to by any other name), a lawyer who’s decided to work the other side of the law to get some money so he can provide for his beautiful new fiancée (Penelope Cruz) and help open a nightclub with a seedy friend (Javier Bardem; sadly, he and his real-life wife Cruz never share time together onscreen). They get involved in the Mexican drug trade, and the counselor swears it’s just for the one time, but everyone—Bardem’s outré and mildly repulsive girlfriend (Cameron Diaz, about whom more later), a seen-it-all middleman (Brad Pitt), and more—knows that once is all it takes for something as nefarious as a drug deal to go wrong. And something does go wrong, though as the story unfurls calmly, it’s revealed that the screw-up that sends the counselor towards his doom may not have been a total coincidence.
Ridley Scott’s career has always been up and down, drifting from the science-fiction fantasias of Alien and Blade Runner to twisted slice-of-life thrillers like Thelma and Louise to drab, dark epics like Gladiator. The Counselor does not represent so much a return to form, as much as slightly hovering once more in the realm of high quality. Outside of a fatal bit of miscasting, The Counselor is easily Scott’s best film since Matchstick Men, if not Black Hawk Down. But it’s entirely thanks to McCarthy’s terse, elliptical, near-poetic script. There are a few violent flashes that may be reminiscent of McCarthy’s literary works, as when a thug sets up an elaborate way to take down a motorcyclist working with the Mexican cartels. But the power of the film, as well as any of its failings, lies in the dialogue. The plot of The Counselor seems to run concurrently with the characters’ endless back-and-forths, the ramblings on life that the counselor hears from anyone willing to bend his ear. Often, scenes take on a dreamy quality; there’s very little grounding or backstory present. We don’t learn about the counselor’s past, nor of his fiancee’s, nor of anything else that may have happened before the story proper took place. Each scene occurs in the here and now, and McCarthy only offers a few clues to piece together what’s happening at any given moment, or a greater context of any kind. Most of the time, it works because of the cast.
But then Cameron Diaz shows up to flatly recite her dialogue and foul up the joint. Early on, representing some twisted id, a male fantasy of rampant female sexuality, Diaz’s character at least visually fits the bill. (Her gold tooth is a strange flourish, as much as Bardem’s comically spiky hair.) But McCarthy’s dialogue, like that of playwright/screenwriter David Mamet, has a specific cadence and flair to it, and with the wrong performer, it lands with a thud. So it is with Diaz, whose character becomes far more important in the second half than would seem obvious in the first. The more the script demands of her, the more she fails. There is more than a bit of Anton Chigurh in this femme fatale, but Diaz cannot shoulder the burden as Bardem could a few years back. Fassbender and Pitt, conversely, stand out, especially in a tension-fraught rendezvous where the former begins to realize exactly how deep his hole is, and how nigh-impossible it is to escape. Pitt, in particular, seems the most capable at tackling McCarthy’s dialogue, exuding calm in even the ugliest of moments.
Visually, The Counselor is more garish and grotesque on the surface than a Cormac McCarthy story may appear. Bardem and Diaz, specifically, waltz on screen as living, breathing representations of the dangers of venality. (This isn’t exactly a condemnation of American greed, considering that Diaz isn’t playing an American character, though her robotic accent tells a different story.) But in the title character’s struggle for survival against implacable odds, so well captured in Michael Fassbender’s cocksure appearance that fades quickly into fear and overwrought emotion, The Counselor at times evokes those protagonists from McCarthy’s best novels. This film has also been released in written form, where it may wind up a fuller, more complete story. At the very least, living on the page may be the best resting place for a tale so obsessed with the march to the grave people make as they drift through life.
— Josh Spiegel