Plot points throughout the film are discussed in this review.
In one of those odd coincidences, in back to back weekends, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt star in the two most intentionally unpleasant films of the year.
Last week saw the release of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s unflinching look at one man’s journey through the horrors of slavery. This week sees the release of The Counselor, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s searing examination of a world in which fate is unstoppable and cruel.
Both films luxuriate in a kind of existential despair, inviting audiences to question the very notion of righteousness. And yet, while 12 Years a Slave is earning endless plaudits from critics and audiences alike, The Counselor is much more likely to be divisive and subject to criticism.
The Counselor is almost certainly the superior film. It ratchets up the tension before reaching a shattering conclusion. As a wise man once said, "There can be no true despair without hope." This is why The Counselor is so much more effective than 12 Years: Whereas McQueen tells the tale of Solomon Northup as one largely devoid of hope, Scott and McCarthy tease the audience before smashing every prospect of a happy ending.
The Counselor opens with the eponymous lawyer (Michael Fassbender, whose character is never named) in bed with his soon-to-be fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz). Their affair is steamy, almost comically so. Introducing your leads under the sheets is something of a cheap shortcut, trading physical lust for emotional identification.
To their credit, Cruz and Fassbender make it work. And it’s a good thing they do, as their relationship provides the tinder for the emotional bonfire to come.
The counselor, hoping to earn a big payday before his wedding, goes in for a $20 million deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Pitt), a pair of States-side drug importers in business with a Mexican cartel. From the moment he throws in with this lot, the counselor and the audience are caught in a bolito.
"Do you know what a bolito is?" asks Reiner. The counselor answers in the negative. So Reiner explains:
It’s a mechanical device. It has this small electric motor with this rather incredible compound gear that retrieves a steel cable. Battery-driven. The cable is made out of some unholy alloy, almost impossible to cut it, and it’s in a loop, and you come up behind the guy and drop it over his head and pull the free end of the cable tight and walk away. No one even sees you. Pulling the cable activates the motor and the noose starts to tighten and it continues to tighten until it goes to zero.
McCarthy’s script is littered with little speeches like this, monologues conveying the film’s intent to stare long and hard into the abyss. It’s why we are unsurprised when the deal goes sideways and $20 million of cocaine is stolen. The monologues are why we have a stone in our stomach when a cadre of cartel goons picks up Laura at the airport. No good will come of this, we think. No good can come of this.
It is in the counselor’s dialogue with the Jefe of the cartel that McCarthy and Scott most cruelly toy with our expectations. The girl has been kidnapped; the hero must be given a chance to rescue her. Even if the attempt is unsuccessful, it must be made.
"I would urge you to see the truth of your situation," the Jefe tells the counselor. "It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road, and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago."
That choice leads to a DVD. The word "Hola!" is scrawled on the label. The counselor, who had discussed the intricacies of cartel snuff films with Westray not long before, knows what is on it. He sobs. Director Scott, mercilessly, cuts to a garbage dump somewhere in Mexico. A garbage truck dumps its load; out tumbles a headless body, one that was wearing the same red dress as Laura when she was kidnapped. The camera lingers as trash is piled atop her corpse.
We never see what is on the DVD. Nor do we get a good look at the undoubtedly horrific corpse in that dump. This renders the film’s climax all the more disturbing: The image of Laura’s body discarded like trash is more viscerally upsetting than any of the torture-porn aspects of 12 Years a Slave. It is an image that has failed to leave my mind, an image representing the uncaring nature of this cinematic universe.
McCarthy’s script reads a lot like a McCarthy novel. Here, for instance, is his description of a motorcyclist who plays a small but crucial part in this sordid drama: "The metal door clanks upward and the green leather cyclist comes whining through on a Kawasaki ZX-12 and brakes and does a donut on the concrete floor and stops and shuts off the bike and takes off his helmet." McCarthy’s aversion to commas is pervasive. His love of rhythmic repetition is also present:
REINER: You like it because it reminds you of Argentina.
MALKINA: It is like Argentina. The Pampas. But that’s not why I like it. I like it for itself.
REINER: It doesn’t have to be like something else.
REINER: Do I remind you of someone else?
MALKINA: Yes. You do.
REINER: Someone you miss?
MALKINA: Someone who is dead.
But it is Bardem’s turn as Reiner that steals the show. His interactions with the counselor—such as his recounting of the time his lover Malkina (Cameron Diaz) had sex with (not in, with) his car—are rare moments of levity. They are not there simply for laughs, however. Through Reiner, we see Malkina’s animal-like amorality. From her cold, fishlike eyes to the leopard print tattoo on her neck, Malkina’s behavior helps us to accept her role in the heist that set these terrible events into motion.
The Counselor is a hard film to recommend. Its relentlessly depressing plot is likely to turn off audiences. But it is a masterful film, one that succeeds in conveying the nature of a cold, uncaring cosmos with remorseless tenacity.