Not one ray of light shines from The Counselor. The movie is a void of roughly 120 minutes, showcasing ugliness and misery. It meanders almost without plot from one inconsequential character to another as each pontificates about how life is “all shit.” It’s a huge departure for director Ridley Scott, who’s known for movies with intriguing messages or at least some kind of technical excellence. But in The Counselor, one gets the impression that Scott is very unhappy and wants his audience to leave the theater feeling the same way.
Ridley Scott’s brother—Tony Scott, also a director—committed suicide early on during the production of The Counselor, and it’s hard to imagine that this didn’t have a big effect on him. There’s also the fact that the screenplay was written by Cormac McCarthy, that infamous nihilist who was the brains behind No Country For Old Men, directed by the Coen brothers. That movie was very similar to this one, centering on a failed drug deal and a sociopath killer—subject matter right up the Coen brothers’ alley. It is a shock, however, that Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Thelma and Louise, and Kingdom of Heaven should take on such a script.
The Counselor is about an unnamed lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who decides to work for his drug-dealer friend Reiner (Javier Bardem, doing his best Robert Downey Jr. imitation). Reiner manages a $20 million drug trafficking scheme, but a deal goes sour thanks to conflicting players and back-and-forth struggles between couriers when a massive truck, carting a septic tank full of drugs from Mexico to Chicago, goes missing. Fassbender’s Counselor takes much of the blame. He then spends the rest of the movie crying, moaning, whimpering, simpering, and desperately trying to save his fiancée, Laura, from the nasty people who want to ruin their life.
The Counselor’s relationship with Laura (Penelope Cruz) is a positive one, but it’s exhibited mostly through sordid scenes such as when he tells her how much he loves her during phone-sex. The only tender moment comes the Counselor proposes to her during dinner, presenting her with the ring he has very carefully picked out. Fassbender plays it perfectly—he’s nervous and awkward as he watches for a reaction, but viewers can also see anticipation and excitement. Cruz, meanwhile, seems to see her entire life flash before her eyes as she experiences conflicting disbelief and joy.
The nastiest of characters is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the resident sociopath. Whereas Bardem plays a comparatively jovial guy—a far cry from his role as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men—Diaz’s Malkina is a veritable Whore of Babylon, heinously rich to the point that she has two pet cheetahs with diamond-studded collars. She’s even had cheetah spots tattoed on her back and eyes that look as if they’ve seen everything and laughed at it all. Most of the horrible schemes that dominate the film are of her engineering, and she delights in manipulation. “To see a quarry killed with elegance is just moving, to me,” she says. Her exploits include tormenting innocent and good-natured Laura, harassing a priest during confession, and dry-humping the windshield of a Ferrari.
Brad Pitt appears in the movie as an overgenerous tipper and drug-lord, and Rosie Perez, rounding out the star-heavy cast, shows up as an incarcerated mother. But for some reason Scott chooses to give copious attention to incidental characters like waiters, waitresses, and an overly philosophical diamond salesman. The camera ambles, focusing on the nonessential and the irrelevant. There are numerous close-ups of innocuous inanimate objects, such as the bloody marys which the Counselor imbibes in mass quantities. There’s no surprise when the movie ends in an equally random and abrupt way.
All this transpires near the Mexican-American border around Juarez and El Paso, which Scott paints as a bleak landfill, a world where “decapitations and mutilations are just business.” There’s no end to the amorality evidenced by its denizens: Immediately after a major character is killed in a gunfight, some children emerge from the shadows and loot his warm corpse of virtually everything on his person. When the drug truck has been shot to pieces and covered in viscera, it passes through a truck-stop, where a number of women clean the car with chilling efficiency, nonchalantly filling bullet holes and scrubbing blood off of seats no differently than if it were dirt. Scott obviously wants us to see this region as the North American version of the Heart of Darkness.
One of my friends suggested that perhaps Scott doesn’t sanction the nihilism of Cormac McCarthy and instead intends to hold up a mirror, indicting the drug war and showcasing some of the monsters that it creates. As for me, I hope this is just a phase for him, a chance to release some of his demons. I’m just sorry that moviegoers have to be inflicted with them in the process.