Part of the pleasure of the film is just watching these guys create characters and bounce off each other.
I think The Counselor is already going down as some kind of odd failure. I haven’t ready many reviews, but the tone of the ones I’ve checked out has been apologetic. Not in the “we’re sorry” remorse sense, but in the old school intellectual defense sense. So going into this, I was aware that might be a movie needing a defense. However, I don’t think that’s going to be my approach here.
The Counselor has significant merit on its own. It’s major sin is banal: it is not what audiences expected. Instead of being a pleasant surprise, the largely bloodless and talky film we get probably bored and confused most of its audience. It’s too bad, as The Counselor is an eminently sophisticated and interesting film, combining the (occasionally overwritten here) philosophical words of Cormac McCarthy and the (restrained) filmmaking of Ridley Scott into a film that is more for the actors in it than for anyone else.
It is also a fairly unsubtle criticism of the culture surrounding the war on drugs, particularly the opportunists who probably rationalize the moral and human cost of what they involve themselves in. Because its plot is sparse, or at least sparsely told, it comes across as somewhat disinterested in the machinations of that culture, in any sense. It doesn’t glorify, it doesn’t fully condemn, it just lets you in for a peek behind the curtain and asks you to indulge a reflective perspective on what you see and hear.
Every actor is doing great work, but Bardem drapes himself over this film like it’s an old sofa.
The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a defense lawyer, presumably for criminals, who is on the cusp of doing a deal with an associated called Reiner (Javier Bardem). Together, they are entering into a bunch of different business ventures including the trafficking of narcotics controlled by an unidentified Mexican cartel. Something goes wrong and the consequences come down like the wrath of a spiteful God. This is just business, the movie tells us, while showing us things that we’d normally assume were very, very personal.
The boogeyman of the Cartels has been haunting American cinema for a few years now. It’s hard not to think of it as a sort of new Red Peril, a scapegoat against which Americans can periodically mirror their insecurities, fears, and other assorted issues. But one need only look at the statistics and articles coming out of Mexico, all of which this film is fully aware of, to face a sobering reality. This is a real war, a new kind of war, one with a serious fucking death toll and a seemingly endless supply of soldiers and opportunists.
The characters with whom we spend the most time are all such opportunists. The Counselor, Reiner, and another associated named Westray (Brad Pitt), all get together in a series of scenes where they tell each other stories, advise each other, and explore the psychological and philosophical ramifications of their choices. Each one gives us a different elemental focus for the ur-Drug Opportunist. Counselor is naive, slick, and in over his head. Reiner is crazy, lavish, and delusional. Westray is practical, overconfident, and possibly remorseful. Their conversations are, on the surface, about their lives (especially love lives), the deal, or the consequences about to be visited upon them by pissed off Cartel guys. Beneath that, but sometimes coming out with all the force of a sledgehammer thanks to what feels like a script in need of a bit more polish, there are deeper concerns and issues being explored.
The film’s occasional violence is cold, detached, and unsettling.
Not unlike No Country for Old Men (the novel was written by Cormac McCarthy), this triumvirate are meant to present us with varying facets of a central situation. In No Country, we also had Sheriff Tom Bell from which to receive the story. He was the through-line that maintained the narrative direction, as he pieced it all together. Here, there’s no Tom Bell. However, all three of the main characters are drawn together by the same situation (the deal) in much the same way as their counterparts in No Country. It’s possible that having a Tom Bell character would have enhanced the accessibility of The Counselor but I feel like that was not the aim.
The Counselor is a very bleak film. There are no happy endings for anyone, except maybe for Malkina (Cameron Diaz). She is this film’s Anton Chigurh. She’s a mystery who makes outlandish claims and does outlandish things. She styles herself a huntress, and ruminates about the philosophical nature of that. She skillfully and coldly sets up and executes the plan that we see play out in the film, but we’re always at a step or two remove from that plan and a galaxy from her.
This film has a strange and potentially off-putting attitude toward women.
The film poses several moral and ethical questions, and even has a brief dance with existentialism. The secondary and tertiary characters who are encountered by The Counselor and Malkina, presumably meant as opposite ends of some sort of continuum, always seem to have some sort of wordy wisdom to share. Most of this is good, particularly the very existential conversation that the Counselor has with a Mexican contact, a man who tells him that he creates his own world through the choices he makes. It’s a fatalistic commentary on the nature of characters like the Counselor, who are almost always the heroes of films like this. Instead of being a basically good guy, or morally ambiguous antihero even, who we root for in spite of that “one bad choice”, this is a film about the culture of that bad choice. It rejects the illusion of narratives we might typically enjoy, and perhaps mistake this film as being in the tradition of, and possibly indicts our enjoyment.
This is sort of maybe why people aren’t liking this film much. The most important bit of dialogue in terms of understanding what it’s saying to us, and to its own themes, is when Westray talks about snuff films. It’s one of the great dialectical moments in a very dialectical film, wherein Westray raises the notion that to watch a snuff film is to be an accessory in murder precisely because it is the potential for consumption that drives the creation of the consumed. There are reductive problems with this point of view, but the elegance of the message resonates. It’s that guys like Westray, Counselor, and Reiner are all those (unwitting or otherwise) watchers of snuff film. But so is the audience of The Counselor. So are the regular people who profit from, opportunize, or even ignore the drug war happening around them, and all the nasty consequences thereof. The difference between Westray and his counterparts is that he’s aware of this. Awareness, however, does not save you.
The Counselor’s failure is to see this, a protest about the lives lost in the tribal conflict of the Cartels in Mexico, as a necessary part of the world he’s entering.
The consequences for everyone are dire and tragic. There is no happy ending, except for Malkina. She’s an utter sociopath, the most vital and monstrous depiction of the Whore that I’ve seen in a while. Her sexuality and exoticism are her weapons, but she’s also fiercely intelligent and predatory. She and Crystal from Only God Forgives are like mother and daughter or something. On the other end is the mostly decorative Laura (Penelope Cruz) who presents us, and more importantly the Counselor, with a Madonna to aspire to. She’s pretty and kind and trusting. She’s the innocent lamb, a victim served up unwittingly by choices she didn’t make at all. Collateral damage, of the kind we roll our eyes at (rightfully) because her blindness was such that she couldn’t see anything at all. She’s a nice compliment to the Counselor, and with him she provides us with a counterexample to the unrepresented real innocents brutalized by the culture this movie depicts.
On some level, the Counselor believes everything he does is for Laura, to have the money to support lavish gifts that acknowledge her beauty (as a diamond dealer tells him is the philosophical nature of adornment). Diaz is not always up to the task of someone like Malkina, and I’m not even sure the carefully constructed fiction of this film fully supports the existence of a total X-Factor like her. She’s memorable, though, that’s for sure. She steals every scene she’s in, except for the very last one which falls very flat partly because Diaz’s performance and line-delivery fizzle. The words are unwieldy, perhaps even pretentious, but unfortunately they’re her responsibility at that point.
Speaking of the Madonna/Whore binary… The Counselor is probably a very problematic film, in terms of its gender politics. The perspective is mostly male, and many of the conversations revolve around sex and sexuality in a frank, mystified, and fatalistic way. The Counselor’s main preoccupation with Laura seems to be sex wrapped in unconvincing sentiment (“Life is being in bed with you, everything else is just waiting). Westray is a cavalier chauvinist, knowing himself for being a helpless rake. More interesting, there’s Reiner who is not possessive nor cavalier, but actually stupefied and entranced by the sexual power of Malkina, who is his lover. He tells a story that, whatever people think of this film, will go down in history as “The Catfish Story”. In it, Bardem takes something so alien and outlandish as to be ridiculous on its face, and completely sells the cognitive dissonance of attraction and repulsion. He probably knows Malkina is playing them all (one conversation he has with her seems to go a ways into acknowledging this), but he can’t help himself with her. Yet, in his bafflement of her is also the thriving garden of not-quite-misogyny where he explains to the Counselor that you can “do anything you want to them, just never bore them”.
This may also be the movie that people remember as “that time Cameron Diaz fucked a car”.
I feel like this is a movie that will slide around the heads of audiences, more than going over them. There’s too much here that’s sticky, resonant, and nasty to just be completely numb to it. But there’s an almost hostile lack of concern for what the audience may be thinking and feeling watching it that I think a lot of people will understand, on some level, that they are being accused by it and that it doesn’t much care whether this bothers them.
The Counselor makes a nice compliment to this year’s Spring Breakers though it is perhaps even less accessible. They are both dealing in criticism of complex social and ethical issues of our day. They are both widely hated by audiences ill-equipped to understand them, let alone grapple with the complexities of our collective complicity in the culture surrounding drugs in North America (and beyond). The world that The Counselor relies on is a very real one, the staggering body counts and barbaric tactics are things that really happen (and are typically normalized out of their shock value by mass media, books, TV, and movies). If you come out of it thinking about how unkindly history is likely to judge The War on Drugs, and how quickly the entire wasteful and destructive house of cards might collapse if steps were taken to decriminalize the narcotics that fuel these atrocities, I believe you’ll have got the message that McCarthy and Scott are trying to send.