Just as I’d concluded Ridley Scott was content to churn out mechanical, technically proficient but empty movies for the rest of his career (which, given his current productivity, won’t be over until he’s 115) he starts to become interesting again. I know it’s taken furious beatings from all and sundry, but I actually liked Prometheus. A ropey script but a superlative piece of filmmaking. And now comes The Counsellor, dribbling Cormac McCarthy’s hot ink, a movie that few appear to hold in esteem. It’s certainly a bit of a mess, frequently closer to a grab bag of disconnected scenes than a cohesive story, and displays a penchant for rambling indulgent monologues and tale telling that verges on parody. But I’m at a loss as to why so much bile has been heaved over it. This is dark, brooding, unwholesome material and, for all its shortcomings, The Counsellor represents Scott at his most engaged and interesting.
McCarthy was surely scoffing at any presumptions the viewer might have of a tale with a strong narrative grip. He seems, and Scott – screenplay selection was clearly never his forte – appears content to indulge him without comment, more caught up in the delights of any given exchange than ensuring the overarching whole comes to life. And so, it’s a movie of great scenes, weird scenes, apparently irrelevant scenes and occasionally just plain crappy scenes. We’re probably spoiled in having one peerless McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men, as it forms a yardstick against which all others are measured and inevitably come up short. The Coens are the Coens, and they ensure plot is comes foremost, for all the wilful idiosyncrasies that may lie within (the fate of No Country’s nominal hero, for example). In some respects, it’s sort of admirable that McCarthy, and a deferential Scott, is so willing not to give a damn about expectations, to just go with whatever he feels pulled towards in any given moment.
At times a seemingly random discourse lays the seed for later pay-offs, just because you know no writer could the resist the lure of the set up. But, when this occurs more than a couple of times, the device ends up looking clumsy, no matter how engaging a given conversation between Michael Fassbender’s Counsellor (a lawyer who wants to get involved in cocaine trafficking) and Javier Bardem’s Reiner (a razzle-dazzle, livewire trafficker) may be. Perhaps there is indeed a purposefully twisted provocation behind the Counsellor’s repeated and uncomprehending responses to any given yarn during any given encounter (and he is told a fair few, to the extent that McCarthy either sees this as some kind of meta-thing or he has no control over his weaker authorial impulses). That feeble refrain of, “Why are you telling me this?” is heard at intervals throughout. In the cases of Reiner’s explanation of a bolito and Brad Pitt’s Westray’s account of snuff movie justice, this serves to introduce the unmetered practices of the cartel (don’t cross them). Likewise, pretty much any discussion of anyone holds up a flashing “Warning” sign, announcing that at some later point this very factor will be present in their downfall (male characters’ weakness for women, for example, or the repeated suggestion that Cameron Diaz’ Malkina – whom the Counsellor barely meets but who is key to the loss of all that he holds dear – is unknowable and someone to be feared).
That Fassbender’s Counsellor is never referred to by any other name is surely intended as starkest irony rather than an existential statement. This isn’t a figure stripped to his barest iconographic essentials (such as Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern’s characters in The Driver). This is a lawyer, a Counsellor, who finds himself in perpetual need of counsel from others. And whose advice he invariably ignores. There’s another problem in this, a result of the movie’s overt posturing; for all its plays on philosophical discourse and verbose poetics the script is wholly short on substance. The drug trade will be the death of you; it’s a fool’s game. And take responsibility for your choices, because there are no second chances. As Ruben Blades’ cartel boss instructs the Counsellor, during a monologue so ripe it teeters into self-parody; “You are the world you have created, and when you cease to exist, that world you have created will cease to exist”. McCarthy is fantastic at dressing his world in a natty suit, an area where Scott is also no slouch. But Blades ends up coming across as the most pompous windbag this side of The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect. All that’s needed is for Will Ferrell to spoof him. Part of me thinks this must be intentional, since the pathetic sight of Fassbender blubbing away in his car as Blades drones on begs derision. When Blades calls off with “If I have time I think I’ll take a small nap” it elicits almost bathetic mirth. Yet if The Counsellor is an intentional joke it’s a slender one, all elaborate build up but lacking a strong punch line.
Fassbender gives a good performance. He always does. But his character is a (intentional?) vacuum at the core of Scott’s movie, a cypher. The Counsellor’s blithe lack of realisation of what he is doing and the effects it will have, a dissonance between being told something is the case and actually experiencing it first-hand, is to illustrate the lesson that “you continue to deny the reality of the world you are in”. But it’s a fairly obvious teaching and, because Fassbender is such a chump, it’s difficult to engage in his plight; even on a level of the Counsellor’s narrative descent, McCarthy has gone out of his way to stuff-up his pudding.
A succession of scenes highlight that the lead character is about to get in way over his head. First Reiner warns him off (in earlier, wiser times the Counsellor turned down an offer), then Westray (“If you’re not in, you need to tell me”), and each time the Counsellor reassures, “No, I’m all right”. He reeks of a lack of conviction. He indicates his current course is because his “back’s against the wall” but it’s uncertain if this is really the case or he has chosen to make it so. This is a man investing in a club and buying his girlfriend 3.8-carat diamonds. The Counsellor wants to be a player, despite the wise warnings from those who have seen the downside of such a life and (so far) lived to tell. As Blades’ character suggests (there are some golden nuggets in his speech, but it has to be sifted through, and the urge to nod off actively fought): “I don’t mean to offend you, but reflective men often find themselves at a place where they are removed from the reality of life”.
As a result, the Counsellor plays fast and loose with the safety of his dearest, Laura (Penélope Cruz). And yet we wonder about this. If the thin imprint of the Counsellor is a purposeful one on the part of McCarthy, barely a whisper in the room while others make their present felt in the most emphatic and expressive manner, is the tepid romance with Laura likewise intentional? I’m unsure. It seems peculiar to devote so much time to a relationship that has no impact, and a couple you really don’t care for. Scott stages pretty but dull trysts between them, and McCarthy offers dirty talk that fails to crackle or combust. But he also leaves so many spaces for the audience to fill in (something that is commendable, just so long as the author has sufficiently plugged those holes in his own head). It’s entirely possible he is wagging a finger at the empty-headed materialistic dream these two pursue, oblivious to the consequences until it is too late. The Counsellor overtly so, Laura by association (it is unclear how much she knows but evidently it is enough). Laura’s scene with Malkina, as the latter listens and belittles Laura’s Catholicism (“What a world”) suggests someone who doesn’t know what she thinks or feels, isn’t truly alive and conscious (unlike Malkina; for all her vituperative cunning she is fully present). She lives in a bubble, until it is rudely burst and she ends up in a landfill (one presumes her other half is soon to follow).
It’s a failing though, this kind of heavy-handed signposting. There’s a lovely, slowly unspooling scene near the beginning in which the Counsellor visits Bruno Ganz’s dealer to buy a diamond. Scott exults in the detail of the rock, its inspection and the conversation as it pores over the science of the perfect gem. Much of the dialogue focuses on the properties of the “cautionary” stone; a couple of scenes later, the oblivious title character queries the “cautionary nature” of a conversation with Westray, who offers an overt evocation of Body Heat’s plea from Mickey Rourke to William Hurt not to go through with murder; “Don’t do it, Counsellor”. This sort of writing isn’t even restrained enough to be called on-the-nose; it’s laid out on the page with great neon arrows a-pointing.
The thematic clarity contrasts with the frequently opaque plotting. Malkina is established fairly early on as the brains behind everything that goes wrong for everyone else, although the ins-and-outs of how she effects this are at times obscure. Presumably it’s enough to know she has ruddy great cheetah tattoos across her back, repeatedly states how hungry she is and maintains a fearless repose (“Nothing is crueler than a coward”). McCarthy offers no restraint in emphasising her callousness (“I think the truth has no temperature” she replies to Reiner’s suggestion she is a bit on the cold side) and to her credit Diaz fully embraces Malkina’s cartoonish villainy. I’ve seen many and assorted criticisms of Diaz’ performance, but I’d argue she’s the perfect fit, relishing the character’s undiluted psychopathy. She’s also a fine complement to Bardem’s crazy-haired, tinted shades abandon. There is clearly intended to be a contrast between their respective excesses and the reserve (but lack of corresponding awareness) of the nominal protagonists. Malkina’s ultimate plan may be on the convoluted side, since she relies on numerous unknowables to reach Westray’s accounts, but she is carried by couple of convincingly barnstorming scenes along the way. We don’t doubt she can do what she does.
The most celebrated (so to speak) is a flashback where Reiner recounts, apropos nothing in particular, Malkina fucking his car (“Mostly I was just fucking stunned”). It’s about as broad as The Counsellor gets, and it’s not often that Scott tickles his funny bone (A Good Year doesn’t count, or shouldn’t) which makes this the more refreshing. Earlier Malkina visits confession, laying her jaundiced perspective before an outraged priest. The message is clear; she has nothing to hold her in check, which makes her powerful. As Reiner says, “She scares the shit out of me”. She also provides the priest with a snippet of unnecessarily garish backstory (she saw her parents thrown from a helicopter when she was three), since it’s enough to know that she is an untamable and ferocious force of nature; there’s no need to explain her motives. Westray, who operates as the voice of lapsed wisdom (he knows better, but it doesn’t prevent him from tripping himself up), warns of Malkina “Because you don’t know someone until you know what they want”, a comment that finds a comfortable home with a great many pronouncements in McCarthy’s script that border on the platitudinous. Yet they fit this world of self-glorified operators, whose ephemeral world needs to be cloaked in a veneer of confidence and comprehension.
The lack of attention McCarthy has paid to his plot is evident in some of the unlikely devices he picks up along the way. How feasible is it that a sewage truck will be travelling back and forth between Mexico and the States? I mean, I could see the US evacuating itself in Mexico, but vice versa? Thus, as a means of drug trafficking it’s probably the most obvious possible vehicle to search.
Likewise, the elaborate means of securing The Green Hornet’s key for said sewage truck doesn’t bear much scrutiny. How many hours is the wireman (Sam Spruell) sitting by the side of the road, his lethal trap stretched across it, without any other vehicle chancing by? It makes for a great scene, admittedly, and Scott also delivers later with a high-octane shoot-out between the purloiners of the truck and the pursuing cartel, but likelihood doesn’t factor highly. These are untypical suspenseful sequences. Elsewhere, you’d be forgiven for thinking McCarthy and Scott consider such narratives beneath them. It’s also unclear just how Natalie Dormer secures Westray’s password for his bank account through sleeping with him. Who would leave a word/code lying around to be found, particularly when most people find them terribly easy to memorise?
Nevertheless, The Counsellor rarely fails to engage. Much of that is down to Scott’s dexterity, but the difference this time out is, both the malicious sense of humour and the (mostly) bright and memorable characters and dialogue. When was the last time he had them in his arsenal? And no, (again) I’m not counting A Good Year. This is his first teaming with Pitt since the movie that made the actor, Thelma & Louise, and it’s the kind of part at which he excels; the illusion of surety. He’s a perfect mouthpiece for McCarthy’s dialogue, knowing not to embrace too emphatically its heightened flourishes. Westray is the closest the movie gets to a sympathetic character, aware of his foibles (“I should have jumped ship a long time ago”) but without the strength of character to avoid them (“I’m going to go find a nice quiet place and sit down and think about this” he promises the Counsellor, before jumping into bed with the first girl he sees in London; who just happens to be Malkina’s asset). Which makes Westray’s demise particularly unpleasant. McCarthy leaves much to the imagination, but presumably this one was too good to resist; the bolito makes its mark to appallingly grizzly effect. Westray, powerless to defend himself, is left shouting “Fuck you!” to his unseen attacker until speech is no longer possible.
Bardem is having a lot of fun, pretty much the picture’s comic relief, playing a character who ultimately has no more common sense than the Counsellor. His demise is one-part mishap, and leaves the Counsellor in rarefied territory (“The new definition of a friend is someone who will die for you. And you don’t have any friends”). There are a number of brief appearances from actors once used to meatier roles. Perhaps it was the Ridley/Cormac factor that attracted them. Rosie “Bobo” Perez isn’t on screen long enough to grate. Goran Visnjic and an uncredited John Leguizamo are one scene deals too, as is Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris this time on the other side of the law. And Toby Kebbell, who really deserves larger and better roles, rules a scene opposite Fassbender as a former client.
Scott is no stranger to crime movies, but they’ve tended to be more linear and less interesting than those of his brother Tony (who died while this was in production). Ridley’s working with Daruisz Wolski as his DP, who also lensed Prometheus, so this looks expectedly gorgeous, and the fetid atmosphere suits the director far more than prefab productions like Black Rain or American Gangster. It’s a shame he’s back in so-so epic territory for Exodus: Gods and Kings next, as it’s difficult to conceive of anything exciting or different being done with the Biblical tale. Special praise is deserved for Daniel Pemberton’s wonderful score. Prometheus’ music, by Marc Streitenfeld, was sorely disappointing, even sapping the energy from the picture at points, so it’s a pleasure to note Pemberton adds immeasurably to the picture’s overall mood and texture; this is by turns subtle, exotic and paranoid. I haven’t seen the extended cut, although I have the impression the weight of opinion considers it inferior. Scott has occasionally improved things with a different version (Kingdom of Heaven, although that picture is unsalvageably crippled by its lead actor) but with others has just engaged in unnecessary tinkering (Alien).
Ridley Scott can stand to make the odd failure (he’s had long enough runs of duds pre-2000s), particularly as this one came in unusually cheap (so much so, it may even turn a profit despite its critical lambasting and the general public’s indifference). I’d hope he continues to use this late career period to make interesting movies rather than rote projects, or at least alternates between the two. One couldn’t call The Counsellor a success but it’s an alluring misstep, one with much that sparkles amid the muck. It also suggests a director easily capable of reinvigoration, given the right material. Given Scott is now in his mid-seventies, this is something to celebrate.