Film Review: The Counselor

Screenwriter Cormac McCarthy serves up a woman-hating monstrosity packed within a Ridley Scott action motif.

Oct 25, 2013 at 2:39 pm

The Counselor | C-

It’s no surprise that novelist-turned-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy is a particularly manly grade of nihilist, a writer given to pseudo-biblical prose and extreme acts of violence. But who knew the celebrated 80-year-old author was such a vicious misogynist?

In The Counselor, directed by stylist Ridley Scott but penned by McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses), he depicts women as sexually ripe innocents, carnally voracious psychopaths or dead-eyed whores who dispassionately offer blow jobs to their lawyers. There is no in-between; no suggestion that women have any value beyond fucking or killing (as brutally as possible, of course). They will either adore their men or betray them. They want big diamonds and, if given the chance, will fornicate with your sports car.

Amazingly, this last truism is a cinematic centerpiece, with Malkina (Cameron Diaz) spread-eagle, grinding her nether regions against the windshield of a Ferrari. Her boyfriend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), describes the encounter as “too gynecological to be sexy,” comparing her vagina to the suckered mouth of a catfish. Bardem does his best to deliver the line with befuddled irony, but McCarthy is anything but ironic. His austere, black-hearted tales are stone serious.

Which means, of course, that The Counselor is a total bummer of a movie: an unpleasant and overly talky death march through a moral wasteland of greed, murder and double-crosses. And just to be sure you remain queasy throughout, things kick off with some post-coital pillow talk between Michael Fassbender (the titular counselor) and his one true love (Penelope Cruz).

“I want to love you until I die,” he says. “Me first,” she answers. And given how bluntly McCarthy lays down his narrative callbacks (descriptions of a mechanical garrote and horrifying snuff film are inserted with a just-you-wait thud), you know where the film is headed, even if the script makes it nearly impossible to understand how we’ll get there.

The movie opens with Fassbender’s arbitrarily nameless counselor professing love for his gal, then jetting off to Amsterdam to buy her a diamond for an engagement ring. Why Amsterdam? Why not? It gives Scott an excuse to cast the wonderful Bruno Ganz as a jaded but wise diamond merchant. All this is intercut with a speeding motorcycle, many kilos of drugs being transported across the border in a sewage truck (apparently the United States is importing shit), cheetahs hunting jack rabbits in the Texas desert, and Reiner and his mistress Malkina waxing poetic about sex, death and truth.

Reiner is a Bronzer-toned dandy, the Counselor’s client and soon-to-be partner. You see, our hero needs cash and has entered into a criminal enterprise (his role in which is never clear) that involves a Mexican drug cartel. (If you’re not sure how dangerous they are, may I suggest renting the first three seasons of Breaking Bad?)

Over and over, the Counselor is warned that his supposedly one-time deviation from the straight and narrow could be a bad bet. Even veteran middleman Brad Pitt, who admits he should have gotten out of the game a long time ago, advises the Counselor that he should steer clear. Of course, he’s deaf to those apocryphal monitions.

And, wouldn’t you know, things go south – really, really south. Didn’t see that one coming did you? Neither did the Counselor.

From then on, the clock starts ticking on The Counselor’s five main players, as McCarthy’s lurid cautionary tale goes exactly where you expect it: a plot-driven story that shows startlingly little interest in plot, character development or exposition. McCarthy instead opts for endlessly prosaic monologues and novelistic exchanges about the madness of the universe, and the depths of moral depravity that man will accept. Some of it is memorably eloquent, demonstrating the author’s violent flair for language, but none of it is inherently dramatic.

Scott, whose visuals are as impeccable as ever, has never been much of a storyteller. He has neither the wit nor narrative savvy of the Coen brothers, who were able to corral McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. This leaves him at the mercy of a sloppy script, unable to provide flavor or personality to his film.

The actors find themselves in similarly dire straits. Fassbender and Pitt are convincing but indistinct; Cruz barely registers; and Diaz is tragically miscast as The Counselor’s ruthlessly degenerate femme fatale. Only Bardem impresses, bringing impish charm and motor-mouthed vulgarity to Reiner. He portrays Reiner as a man who lives his life as loudly as possible in order to hide his underlying insecurities. It’s a terrific character creation, but one that is ultimately undone by McCarthy’s mannered absurdities.

The Counseloris an elaborate concoction with a single point to make: one bad decision can result in the unimaginably brutal destruction of life. It’s a message that Reuben Blades’ crime boss delivers to Fassbender’s damned counselor in an extended phone call. Here, McCarthy lays bare his thesis with such grace and deft that one can’t help but wonder if the rest of the movie was even necessary.

In the end, it’s Ganz’s cynical monologue that resonates strongest. He describes a diamond seller’s life as an endless quest for flaws, one where he has learned to not only accept but also love the imperfections he discovers. I can relate. But in The Counselor, there is little beauty and less reason to enjoy McCarthy’s pretentious imperfections.


The Counselor is in theaters now and is rated R with a running time of 111 minutes.