The idea of Cormac McCarthy writing an original screenplay for Ridley Scott with silly-haired Javier Bardem and elaborate motorcycle beheadings inspired so many TAKE MY MONEY reactions that The Counselor was destined to be doomed by high expectations. The film itself? It isn’t a total disappointment, but it’s guaranteed to piss off the people who were expecting another No Country for Old Men.
The Counselor has elements of No Country – dusty southwest setting, protagonist in over his head, elaborately brutal methods of murder, the sense that chaos rules all and any character could bite it at any second. But it’s more like Traffic as written by Beckett and Kafka than any Cormac McCarthy story that’s made it to the screen thus far. Where maybe we expected a few terse words, a coin flip, and some creatively plotted brain splatter, The Counselor is downright verbose. Every character is an amateur philosopher and each scene involves a lengthy meditation on the nature of human choice and causality, with only the most oblique relevance to the situation at hand. All to drive home the general message that “you’re f*cked, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Which is to say, it’s maybe what we should’ve expected when McCarthy’s words went straight to screen without an adapting middleman to soften his vagueness and misanthropy. He’s the kind of writer where you can read some of his sentences ten times and still not understand them. The Counselor‘s dialog feels over written and the story under written in equal measure. Still, there’s a cackling unpredictability to it compelling it forward, where you know you’re never far from something unspeakably awful happening. It’s easier to deal with excessive philosophizing when it’s always bookended by brutality. There’s a sense of impending disaster every time you see a McCarthy character happy, because you know that at any moment, McCarthy the sadist could burst through, spraying blood around the room and writing the rest of the story with severed dicks. I like to imagine he has “CHAOS REIGNS” written on his wallet like Jules in Pulp Fiction.
Michael Fassbender plays the lead, a fancy-boy Texas lawyer known simply as “counselor,” who drives a Bentley and covers his tight body in designer clothes. He’s in some vaguely-defined and offhandedly-mentioned money trouble that drives him to get involved in a drug deal with his buddies Reiner (Bardem), the club promoting Brian Grazer lookalike, and Brad Pitt’s character, a know-it-all, seen-it-all veteran of the drug world who dresses like a model in a Texas-themed Project Runway episode. A cowboy shirt with silver-tipped collar? Ooh la la! The counselor is getting in over his head just as he’s falling head over heels for his Spanish ingenue, Penelope Cruz.
Just like in No Country, the different sets of characters all become entangled in the same drug deal. In this case, a smuggling plot involving barrels of drugs stuffed inside a sewage truck traveling between Juarez and El Paso. Unlike in No Country, where each character and his respective motive was clearly laid out, in The Counselor, it’s nearly impossible to work out who is who, what they want, and at times even what they’re doing. Call me a wuss, but I do kind of like knowing that stuff. Convoluted plots and constant subterfuge have become an action movie crutch the past few years, where screenwriters compensate for a weak story by mostly hiding it from you. But I’m not sure that’s what’s going on here. The plot clearly exists, they’re not covering up something that isn’t there, it just feels like McCarthy and Scott didn’t make it a priority to actually communicate it to us. Human beings are just turd-squirting gutpiles to Cormac McCarthy, after all, what does he care what we understand? We know that there’s some sort of truck doohickey functioning as macguffin and that Fassbender is involved in this deal somehow, but nothing of the specifics.
In some ways, the vagueness works. One of the things that struck me about Narco Cultura, a documentary about the same Juarez drug wars that The Counselor uses as its setting, was the way all it took was the slightest rumor for someone to want you dead. It could be based on nothing and not even close to true, but once it was out there, you better get out of town. In that sense, the arbitrary menace and not really knowing what’s going on in the movie fits the world it’s depicting perfectly. In other ways, a little explanation could’ve gone a long way. At one point, Brad Pitt tells Fassbender “You know those headless bodies they find out in the street every morning? That’s just business for these people, a way to keep up appearances. You know who they really hate? …You, counselor.”
That might have been a great line, all sexy and ominous, as I’m sure it was intended, except that because we don’t really understand how Fassbender is actually involved, it just leaves us confused. The cartel guys hate him because… he’s white? Because of his car? His sweet linen pants? His huge penis? I couldn’t tell you.
Meanwhile, Cameron Diaz functions as The Counselor’s ersatz Anton Chigur, the heavy, a lady with cheetah make-up and cheetah spot tattoos who owns a pair of cheetahs. There’s one incredible scene where her boyfriend Reiner describes a bizarre sexual encounter with her, intercut with flashbacks, where “she f*cked my car, man.”
The laugh-out-loud strangeness of it and Bardem’s mystified face nearly justifies her otherwise lame character and the movie as a whole. But for the most part, the dragon lady character who derives sexual pleasure from predators BECAUSE SHE’S A PREDATOR HERSELF, MAAAAAN belongs in a B-movie, like Dredd or something with Arnold. It’s hard to combine hard-boiled misanthropy and high-minded meditatin’ with some cheesedick Dr. Evil character.
The Counselor is mostly a lot of nonsense, but it packs enough memorable imagery and McCarthy weirdness to keep it interesting. I always thought Waiting for Godot could’ve used a beheading or two.