Walking out of The Counselor, I knew I'd witnessed something grotesque and brilliant. I felt disoriented and cheated, and yet the moment it was over I wanted to turn around and watch it again.
High hopes come with the territory. The film is directed by Ridley Scott and stars some of the best actors around. Most of all, this is the first screenplay written directly for the screen by the great American novelist Cormac McCarthy. But No Country For Old Men this is not, and viewers expecting that level of craftsmanship will be disappointed.
How to explain? Imagine if everyone in the salacious melodrama Wild Things were a philosopher, and in between their shady double-crossings and backdoor deals, the characters took the time to sit down and discuss eloquently with each other the true meaning behind the nature of reality, truth, love and their own twisted motivations. Think of David Mamet levels of affected dialogue, plus the weird animal symbolism you'll find in Werner Herzog's feature films—and that's not it, either.
Describing the plot won't help, but here it is anyway. Michael Fassbender plays the flawed hero, known only as "The Counselor." He's a lawyer by day, but otherwise doesn't counsel anyone, so no need to read too much into the title. He's in love with Laura (Penelope Cruz). Not since Shakespeare's Desdemona have we seen a woman so uncomplicatedly devoted. For whatever reason (the film isn't telling, except to point vaguely at greed and cash-flow issues) the Counselor thinks he's going to involve himself in a shady deal just this once, and then he's out. The drugs are coming across the Mexican border in septic tanks, and the transporter thing (don't ask, I don't know either) is hidden in a motorcycle helmet. There are a lot of hands in the pot and it's hard to follow just how people are involved or whose side they're on.
Brad Pitt is a nihilistic middleman in a bolo tie who might be delivering the film's thesis statement when he tells us how he's been everywhere and seen the world for what it really is: shit.
Reiner (Javier Bardem) looks like a drug dealer and acts like one, but in between talking about business, he's got a lot to say about the darkness inside a man's heart and about the way women have wielded seduction in his life like an ax.
Reiner is in love with Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who keeps cheetahs as pets—and in case the cat-eating-mouse metaphor escapes you on that level, she has cheetah spots tattooed along her back to drive the point home further. Reiner tells us, "She understands everything," and I'm thinking she's the only one. Her mascara cakes around her eyes obscenely and she wears a cartoonish amount of large, gold jewelry.
Critics have been quick to point out the film's lack of subtlety in general, and they're not wrong, per se. The story points to the characters who will end up dead, and then sure enough it happens, and just the way we're told it will. I have to think that we're not meant to feel surprised, but some other emotion entirely. Is it dread or recognition or what?
Many Ridley Scott films are dark, in a literal sense. He tends to drain the color out of things. But this film is well lit and in focus, with bright, garish colors that left me feeling even more terrible.
Still, I haven't had time to mention the wise jeweler, or the film's fantastic violence, or the fact that Diaz makes love to the hood of a car. What does it mean when she tells us that the truth has no flavor, or when the Mexican drug lord says that men create the world in their own head?
At its worst, The Counselor is a tired story about a man in crisis after a drug deal gone wrong. Looked at another wayand this comes to us via the strength and weirdness of McCarthy's prosethe film is a meditation on what it means to be alive. On my next viewing, I intend to forget about the plot and instead listen more closely to what the characters have to say.
The Counselor continues at the Carmike 12.