‘The Counselor’ movie review: Cormac McCarthy’s cartel thriller a masterpiece

Harsh and uncompromising and breathtakingly beautiful all the same, The Counselor is brilliant, brilliant stuff. Directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy, it’s a sparse, bleak neo-noir set on the US/Mexico border bolstered by an outstanding cast, first-rate production, chilly-cool mood, and poetic dialogue. Love it or hate it, it’s an unforgettable experience.  

And it’s also this year’s Killing Them Softly, widely rejected by critics and audiences alike. Film lovers take note: ignore the consensus (general audiences: no, it’s not for you.) This is not an easy or likable or conventional film in any sense, but it’s a film that demands be seen and re-seen by attentive viewers, one that will be endlessly analyzed, debated, and discussed for years to come. 

The Counselor opens with a bird’s-eye shot of bodies writhing under the sheets like ghosts before delving beneath them for a disarmingly intimate introduction to two of its leads: the titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and lover Laura (Penélope Cruz), in mid-embrace. With no other information for us to apply to these characters, this is the only shot in the film that can be described as innocent. 

One of the major themes here is about coming to terms with past decisions. The Counselor makes a bad one: investing in a drug deal that involves Colombian product and the Mexican cartel. His business associates – friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), who introduces him to this world, and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) – repeatedly warn him of the danger of the situation, even as they allow him to blindly proceed. 

“The cautionary nature of this conversation is worrying,” the Counselor tells Westray. It should be. Reiner talks about a “bolito”, a mechanical device with a strong wire that is placed around the neck: a motor slowly retracts the wire until arteries are severed and the head sliced off. Westray describes a snuff film, in which the viewer is by definition an accomplice to murder. This is the world that he is entering. 

Why does the Counselor get involved? A simple answer to anything in this movie would be too easy, too conventional. But we’re given enough information to draw our own conclusions. A diamond engagement ring is bought. Later, questions of financial trouble are raised. For McCarthy to tell us that the Counselor is investing in drugs because of the engagement ring would be silly. But for him to let us infer it is brilliant. 

The expense of the ring is mentioned twice. Later, Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) examines it, asking Laura if she wants to know how much it cost, to which Laura emphatically states that she doesn’t. “You really don’t want to know.” Of course, the real cost of the ring will be unflinchingly detailed over the rest of the film.

Malkina. She owns two cheetahs, sports a cheetah stripe tattoo down her back, and, in one of the film’s unforgettable sequences, has sex with Reiner’s car. Specifically, the windshield. To see the split and the gyrations is one thing, but to hear Reiner describing it later – comparing her to a catfish, a bottom feeder working its way up the aquarium glass – is something else. “It was too… gynecological to be sexy. Well, almost.”

Plot remains deliberately obtuse for the longest time. We know that there is a drug deal, and see fragmented specifics of the drug trade – a truck being packed with cocaine, a courier on a motorcycle – but these are just pieces of the puzzle. The whole picture – the specifics of how everything works – is just some vague idea to us. This will frustrate many viewers, but it’s an accurate parallel to how the Counselor perceives things. Many have derided the film for being overly complex or unclear, but that’s the point: we know what we know, and the rest only becomes clear when we pay close attention. 

McCarthy is, perhaps, America’s greatest living writer; good and great films have been made from his past novels, including All the Pretty HorsesThe Road, and No Country for Old Men, which won multiple Oscars including Best Picture. Many viewers hated that climactic resolution in No Country, the off-screen handling of the fate of one of the characters. The entire plot of The Counselor is handled in the same detached manner. 

Written directly for the screen by the author (though not his first filmed screenplay, as is often reported), The Counselor is the finest representation of his work to hit the screen yet, finding a perfect match in director Ridley Scott’s cold, unforgiving handling of the material. Scott’s brother and fellow director Tony, to whom the film is dedicated, committed suicide during filming.

The entire cast is superb, but Diaz (an unusual choice – Angelina Jolie was originally cast in the role) is a standout as the dominant, calculating Malkina, who serves as the film’s amoral compass. Pitt is also great as Westray, who has some choice lines: “You know Jesus why wasn’t born in Mexico? They couldn’t find three wise men. Or a virgin.” 

But the film is perfectly cast right down to the smallest roles, many of whom are in just a single scene: Bruno Ganz as the diamond dealer, Edgar Ramirez as a priest, Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) as a seductress, Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and John Leguizamo as the buyer and his contact. Most memorable, perhaps, is Rubén Blades as a cartel boss, who shares a disarmingly candid conversation with Fassbender’s Counselor during the film’s most devastating scene. 

Technical elements are superb, with richly detailed widescreen lensing by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus) and a terrific Morricone-esque border movie soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton that effortlessly moves from Southern twang to pulsating Euro beats. 

Of course, The Counselor was almost outright rejected by both audiences and critics, garnering a D cinemascore and a rotten 34% on the Tomatometer (including an impressive 19% from the “top critics”). For comparisons sake, that’s the same score as both middlebrow Vince Vaughn movies released this year (The Internship and Delivery Man) and percentage points lower than the idiotic The Purge. The flaccid horror remake Carrie scored a 48%. 

I get the hate from mainstream auds, but the critical backlash is perplexing. Even the positive reviews seemed to be respectful-yet-muted, 2.5 or 3-star affairs. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis is one of the few rays of light, writing in a glowing review: “From all the ellipses, as well as the eccentric, mesmerizing poetry of his dialogue, Mr. McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life. (That’s a compliment […])”

The rest all have it wrong. Through all the cynicism and violence, the bleakness and despair, The Counselor is a brilliant piece of work, timely and relevant both in its portrayal of the drug cartels (whose most recent brutality against women has been spread through social media) and in its core theme of accepting the consequences of past decisions, which can be applied to current American politics (or just about anything else you want it to). I doubt I’ll see a better film this year.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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