Film Review: The Counselor

Cormac McCarthy channels Raymond Chandler to ask the question, "Have you been bad?" The answer is yes.

“If you pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon,” the flamboyant drug dealer cautions his staid business partner, “you’ll eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.” So speak the underworld figures in The Counselor, a literary thriller written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott. Reiner (Javier Bardem), the dealer, dresses as though he’s addicted to “Miami Vice” reruns, replete with spikey hair and Versace shades, but he talks like he’s auditing philosophy courses online. The counselor (Michael Fassbender), a successful yet unfathomably naïve lawyer who for reasons unknown must score a packet, enters into his Faustian bargain with Reiner as though he’s investing in social-media IPOs. Yet we the audience know their scheme to smuggle $20 million worth of heroin is doomed, that the counselor is a tragic figure suffering from an overdose of hubris, that the filmmakers will be extra-earnest in their efforts to sell this cautionary tale that reminds us (over and over) that choices have consequences. As Dracula said to Jonathan Harker, welcoming him into his lair one hundred years ago, “Enter freely and of your own free will!”

McCarthy can be as gothic as Bram Stoker, but he’s also one of America’s leading novelists, a MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer-Prize winner. Sir Ridley can boast that his films have garnered 32 Oscar nominations and nine wins. How could this collaboration go wrong? The Counselor isn’t a bad movie, only a bombastic one. Bardem’s Reiner at least is colorful. His fellow traffickers, middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt) and kingpin Jefe (Rubén Blades), are more sententious still, talking in aphorisms like sages in search of beards, either cautioning the counselor to steer clear of a world he knows nothing about (good advice) or pontificating on his bad decision-making, his regrettable greed and his monumental credulity. McCarthy ignores Aristotle’s three unities and he’s not much for catharsis, but he’s strong on pity and fear and throws in the requisite bad omen, along with an abundance of foreshadowing.

Crime stories generally do double duty as morality plays and some highly successful screenwriters serve up stilted dialogue. David Mamet comes to mind. But his genre films—House of Cards, for example—are archly stylized, so his characters can talk in riddles perfectly suited to the mise-en-scène. While there are fantastic elements in The Counselor, most of them involving Reiner’s sociopathic girlfriend, Malkina (a campy Cameron Diaz), McCarthy expects his audience to believe in these improbable people on the screen, and Scott more or less plays it down the middle. We are treated to a Gorey-like primer on gruesome ways to die, and some hellish renderings of U.S.-Mexico border crossings, but mostly we’re meant to take the proceedings seriously, especially the film’s central relationship between the counselor and his fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz).

Herein lies the crux of the matter. We know nothing about the counselor or Laura, other than that they have good sex, want to lose their inhibitions so they can have better sex, and are well-pleased with themselves. Yet Laura doesn’t have a clue about the counselor’s work, nor do we. He’s well-off (expensive car, elegant clothes, lavish lifestyle) for a public defender, about the only nonlucrative law profession, although we may suppose he has other torts to litigate. On the other hand, he pals around with hedonistic criminals but hasn’t a clue about laundering money. He’s the kind of guy who flies from El Paso to Amsterdam to buy a fabulous diamond he barely appreciates, a metaphor for his lack of insight generally. We can’t root for this guy to climb out of the rat hole he jumps into; we can’t care about him at all.

Nor can we care about the murder and mayhem that ensues from the counselor’s unbelievably bad judgment. McCarthy has a Biblical sense of evil, palpable in his dark novels, but his attempts to shock us in The Counselor fall as flat as his studied dialogue and contrived characters. Only Diaz, with her cheetah fetish (you’ll see) and quaint sexual perversities (you’ll see), rises above the material. On the plus side, production designer Arthur Max, working with set decorator Sonja Klaus, somehow turn England and Spain into the American Southwest, refreshingly free of clichés. Their reimagining of these desert badlands is an oasis in an otherwise arid exercise in existential angst.