Love, sex, drugs, money, murder, beheading, philosophy – the building blocks of life. Or, at least they are if we’re to believe Cormac McCarthy. The author has made a career out of graphic, difficult content that seems like it should be the stuff of pulp novels but instead becomes something much more thoughtful and contemplative. Perhaps he uses that to allow for even darker and more violent content, because it’s not trash if it makes you think. It’s this kind of mentality that he applies to The Counselor, his first screenplay in almost 40 years, directed by Ridley Scott. It’s a movie with dozens of brilliant component pieces that may or may not fit together, and is at once completely on the nose and wholly ambiguous. As a result, I still don’t really know what I think of it.
The Counselor and 2007’s No Country for Old Men, which was based on a McCarthy novel of the same name, are very much of a piece. They both deal with arrogant men who get in over their heads when dealing with Mexican drug cartels, as well as about the nature of evil, choices, free will, chance, and inevitability. Unlike the Coen Brothers’ film, though, The Counselor’s characters feel very much like stereotypes, or at the very most are a series of traits and opinions that are held together only by the strength of the actors playing them. And the cast really is terrific. Mostly.
The titular character is played by Michael Fassbender. Throughout, his only name is “Counselor” and in a lot of ways that’s all he is. He’s an attorney for some less than savory characters, not least of which is Reiner, played by Javier Bardem with yet another ridiculous hairstyle. The Counselor has decided to join Reiner on a business venture trafficking a huge quantity of heroin from Mexico to Chicago. They’re opening a bar together as a means of laundering the money. The third member of their little scheme is Reiner’s partner, Westray (Brad Pitt), a very careful and hence very confident man who doesn’t spend time with Reiner anymore, given how reckless he’s gotten lately.
There are also two women involved in the story, representing two completely opposite ends of the feminine spectrum (in the eyes of movies). The first is the Counselor’s girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). She’s innocent, naïve, sweet, simple, and she and the Counselor are madly, irrevocably in love with each other. This is very important. The other woman is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who is everything Laura is not. Like, the exact opposite, in fact. Malkina is hyper-sexual, incredibly devious, contemptible, vindictive, and heartless. She is Reiner’s live-in girlfriend whom he likes in theory, but is sort of too stuck in his ways to do anything about it.
This $28 million scheme of the boys begins to go south almost right away, because someone knows what they’re up to and plans to hijack the shipment for their own purposes. When one of the people in the chain ends up decapitated and a vital piece of the equation is taken, it immediately gets back to the cartel that the Counselor put up the kid’s bail because his client (Rosie Perez) was his mother. Does that make sense? Seems circumstantial, but we’re told many times that the cartel doesn’t care about the hows and whys of anything; if a deal goes south and they think something funny’s going on, they’ll burn everybody. To the ground. Horrible, painful, inhuman ways of killing people will be dished out and there is next to nothing anyone can do about it. Basically, don’t get involved with drug cartels.
The movie is split into two basic threads that cut back and forth, one being our main characters talking about the nature of love and sex and women and horrible, gut-wrenching murder and how clearly it’s going to happen. The other thread is following the truck with the drugs in it and the dominoes falling that eventually spell the implosion of the grand scheme and the necessity to run. We’re never really told why things are happening or what exactly everything means, which is a staple of McCarthy’s work. At the same time, the leads all just sit around and talk about major themes in ways that nobody would ever really talk to each other.
The three lead men all represent different ways of dealing with their two main issues: women and money. Pitt’s character is calculating and removed. He keeps his money hidden; everything is liquid and he has no earthly attachments. But, he still likes women, and possibly (it’s never elaborated on, go figure) that he may have had a thing with Diaz’s character long ago and that led to the dissolution of his friendship with Bardem. Bardem, on the other hand, knows the business but is completely un-careful; he lives extravagantly, throws lavish parties, has two pet cheetahs, and lets Diaz do whatever she wants. Finally, we have Fassbender, who is completely out of his element, thinking he can play ball with the big boys, and has the biggest liability of all in the form of Cruz, who, again, he loves with his whole being.
Is any one of these men correct? The movie has a very definite opinion about that. In McCarthy’s terms, men can be gotten via their heart, their dick, or their wallet, and sometimes all three. Much as Anton Chigurh (Bardem’s character in No Country) represented the supremacy and unflinching callousness of the criminal underworld, a character here does as well, which I won’t spoil, but it’s much less focused. “The Cartel” essentially is the main representative of all the evil in humanity, and an evil that you or I in the civilized world couldn’t possibly understand and should never hope to meet. No one is safe, especially the innocent.
Scott’s direction is good, as always, and he gives the movie enough flourish without overshadowing the (convoluted) story being told. Since so much of what transpires is represented visually, it has to be done in a way that makes it clear and yet also exciting. I’m not sure it is as clear as it should be. Superficially I knew what was going on, but I continually felt like I was missing something huge. Whether that’s a directorial flaw or it’s just a basic part of the script (McCarthy is the KING of subtext and subtlety), I’m not entirely sure.
The cast is exceptional; Fassbender especially gives another truly wonderful performance. Diaz, however, is either doing Oscar-caliber work or she’s the worst actor on planet Earth. I truly cannot tell. Some of her lines sound so affected and weird, but the character is kind of affected and weird, so I don’t know if it was a choice or just something she couldn’t help. I honestly do not know. There are also cameo appearances from a lot of recognizable actors, including Bruno Ganz, Natalie Dormer, and Dean Norris, all of whom bring something to the proceedings before drifting back into the ether.
So, if you can’t guess already, I don’t really know what I thought of The Counselor. On the one hand, it’s everything I could want in a crime movie; on the other hand, it’s so oblique and navel-gazy that I feel like the story was secondary to “ideas.” I will say that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it, and it has a few scenes that have disturbed and affected me more than any I’ve seen in quite some time, which is really saying something if I, the guy who loves gory horror movies, can get messed up by scenes of violence. But maybe that’s good; maybe a movie that portrays violence in such a horrendous and gut-punching way is exactly what we need. Like McCarthy, I’ll think about it without being committal.