Review: The Counselor (2013)

The Counselor could be cheekily retitled Cormac McCarthy’s Touch of Evil. Like Orson Welles’ classic film it centres on criminal activity on the U.S.-Mexican border and is similarly concerned with the effects of evil on those who get tangled up in it. As Rainer, played Javier Bardem, tells Michael Fassbender’s unnamed Counselor, “If you think you can live in this world and not be a part of it, you are wrong.”

The Counselor teases us with the notion that it is going to be a genre piece about the drug trade: a deal gone bad kind of story familiar to the audience. But the film denies us that interpretive schema fairly quickly. The plot is all surfaces, where characters act out the inevitability of decisions made off-screen or long before we are introduced to the story. Ostensibly, the film tells the story of how the Counselor, his back against the wall for undescribed reasons, has decided to make an investment with a Mexican drug cartel in Juarez; a one time deal, after which he will simply walk away with his girlfriend, Laura, played radiantly by Penelope Cruz (who, incidentally, previously starred in a McCarthy adaptation in All the Pretty Horses).

Rainer and the Counselor’s other associate, Westray (Brad Pitt), constantly warn him of the cartel’s ruthlessness and danger. The irony is that the titular character is the one being constantly “counseled,” but never dispensing advice of his own; he is purely reactive rather than active. The notion that he could ever gain any kind of upper-hand against his enemies isn’t just unfeasible in the world of this film, it’s contrary to the film’s dark philosophy.

Rainer’s girlfriend Malkina, played by Cameron Diaz as predatory sexpot, with a ghoulish grin and an affection for cheetahs, is perhaps the only character truly at home in this dark world. Rainer has fallen hard for her despite, as he confesses to the Counselor in one memorably outrageous monologue, his deep misgivings, and her unsettling nature. At times Diaz seems out of her league with McCarthy’s dialogue, but I’m hard pressed to think of another actress who wouldn’t make Malkina too appealing, too slick. At times this performance reminds me of her character in Oliver Stone's similarly heightened, Any Given Sunday.

Malkina (Cameron Diaz) toys with the Counselor's girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz)
Malkina (Cameron Diaz) toys with the Counselor's girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz)

While the film’s direct antecedents are McCarthy’s own No Country for Old Men, which also involves a central character who makes a poor decision to entertain evil, and Breaking Bad, chronicling the descent of a man into the drug trade in New Mexico, The Counselor in contrast is more frustrating because it denies its central characters the same measure of agency that those other stories grant Llewellyn or Walter White. In The Counselor, events unfold with a kind of frightening inevitability. In trying to instill the Counselor with an appropriate fear of the cartel, Rainer describes one of their frightening methods of execution, ensuring that we will see it used later in the film: Chekhov's bolito, indeed.

Such a film might be seen as utterly pointless to some. Its slick surfaces are strikingly rendered by director Ridley Scott, who for all the flack he takes never fails to deliver on the visual level. I would suggest that in this instance, his visual style perfectly matches McCarthy’s screenplay, with long takes and camera work that suggest visually the connections in the script. Scott slows down his own editing pace, while at the same time channelling some of the more abstract visual poetry of his late brother, Tony. See for instance, a scene of cheetahs emerging from an SUV after a car crash. As well, the violence when it eventually comes is over-the-top and unrelenting.

McCarthy’s dialogue is elliptical and elusive, constantly circling back around to the same themes; characters repeat the same questions to each other as if to assure themselves that there is some hope of understanding the forces arrayed against them. Naturalistic dialogue is beside the point as these speeches have a poetry of their own, and it’s a pleasure to hear actors such as Bardem and Pitt nail the dialogue. It’s also a surprisingly funny film for one with such a bleak outlook. There are many moments that made me chuckle, despite being disturbing.

The strengths of this film are many, if you can set aside the expectations that this is a genre film and open yourself to the fact that all the side-trips are more thematically driven than plot driven. That’s the point of the film. The plot was already determined before the film began; the scenes with the main character are intercut with sequences detailing the drug shipment’s journey which has already begun before the titles pop up, and the connection only becomes clear at the end of the film.

Among the numerous wonderful supporting turns is Ruben Blades delivering a key monologue that results in the Counselor’s final epiphany and Bruno Ganz as a diamond dealer; but Edgar Ramirez' turn as a priest, who, when confronted with Malkina’s profanation of his confession booth, chooses simply to walk away, suggests the only way to avoid destruction is to never be involved to begin with.

The Counselor is a strange beast compared with most of the films out right now: it’s too violent and trashy to be taken seriously by many who would dig its philosophical musings, but its too elusive and unconventionally delivered to please straight genre fans. Still the question at the heart of the film is one that thematically ties it all together: can you flirt with evil and remain unscathed? The Counselor would emphatically suggest, no.

 8 out of 10

The Counselor (USA, 2013)

Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Cormac McCarthy; starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz.