The Counselor

November 9, 2013
cameron_diaz_counselor

In a hotel room in El Paso, two anonymous bodies are entwined beneath the sheets. We listen to their conversation for minutes before we lay eyes on Michael Fassbender and Penélope Cruz, playing the Counselor and his girlfriend, Laura. Having just seen a big René Magritte exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, I couldn’t help thinking of that iconic painting, The Lovers (1928), in which two hooded faces exchange a kiss.

Acting out the cliché, “love is blind”, Magritte’s lovers are drawn to each other without knowing what the other looks like. It’s an image that suggests there is much of any individual that remains essentially unknowable, even to a lover. It also suggests that people may be attracted by mystery – the mystery of another person, or love itself – rather than those qualities that are visible and tangible.

These reflections are highly relevant to The Counselor, a film in which appearances are deceptive and ever-shifting.

With an all-star cast; a celebrated director in Ridley Scott; and a script by one of America’s greatest living novelists, Cormac McCarthy, this has been one of the most keenly anticipated movies of the year. As so often happens, the general reaction has been disappointment and frustration.

The Counselor is certainly a flawed film, but also an intriguing, ambitious one. Like everything McCarthy writes, it is a portrait of a brutal, unforgiving world where bad decisions have dire consequences. It is a Greek tragedy in contemporary costume, with a moral climate reminiscent of the Old Testament. There is a streak of black humour, and a few scenes that are frankly bizarre.

Ridley Scott, who gave us the original exploding chest scene in Alien (1979), is a director who has never thought twice about disconcerting the viewer.

The lead character, who is only ever addressed as “Counselor”, is a criminal lawyer drawn into the murky world he deals with in court. Apart from one scene where he visits a client in gaol, we never see the Counselor do anything vaguely professional. He seems to jet around like an international businessman while having long conversations with his associates, who repeatedly warn him about the step he is about to take.

The Counselor is getting involved with a big drug deal, run by a ruthless cartel of Latin American criminals who are transporting a shipment of cocaine in a sewage truck. His partners in this racket are Reiner (Javier Bardem), a nightclub owner with a wildly decadent lifestyle and a dress sense to match; and Westray (Brad Pitt), a shrewd, self-styled millionaire who affects a kind of Texan chic, with cowboy hat and boots.

Behind all these characters stands Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a femme fatale of extraordinary power and intelligance, with marked sociopathic tendencies. The two-tone hair, pet cheetahs and the cheetah spot tattoo that dapples her back and shoulder, cleraly define Malkina as a predator. Reiner recognises her malevolent force but is powerless to resist

Malkina is the deus ex machina who manipulates the events that engulf the other characters. McCarthy goes to great lengths to establish the warped, manic side of her personality, including a scene where she visits a Catholic confessional and tries to engage the priest in a conversation about sex and sin. In another scene, which will be remembered when the rest of the movie is forgotten, she has sex with Reinert’s car, by removing her knickers and smearing herself all over the windscreen while he sits bug-eyed in the driver’s seat.

There is a lot of extreme violence in this film, balanced out by long philosophical conversations about the nature of women, the meaning of life, and all the evil things the drug barons might do to anyone at all, for no special reason. These nameless, faceless figures never appear on screen, but lurk like sinister deities dealing in the most sadistic forms of murder.

Everything that is going to happen is telegraphed in advance, in a manner that is too heavy-handed to be anything but a deliberate strategy on McCarthy’s part. This diffuses the suspense but adds to the growing sense of dread that slowly wraps itself around the lead characters, as they realise they have offended the implacable drug gods. For everybody but Malkina, who is devoted to strong senations but devoid of feelings, the slide into the abyss gets more precipitous as the story progresses. The central symbol is a mechanical killing device that slowly tightens around a victim’s neck. And that’s exactly how the viewer feels, as this wordy tale of hubris and vengeance edges towards its deathly conclusion.

The Counselor
USA, rated R 
111 mins,
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Cormac McCarthy; starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Rosie Perez

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9 November, 2013.