The Counselor is a dark, disturbing and stylish thriller that portrays the fatal consequences of greed within a world without grace when dealing with devils who know no boundaries.
“Free will” is the gift that keeps on giving, a divinely created thing that separates man from animal, saint from sinner, and determines grace or damnation.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor, the subject of free-will reigns supreme. Notice the preference to screenwriter McCarthy rather than director Ridley Scott? That is because The Counselor is a McCarthy joint through and through. Ridley Scott provides the dynamic imagery and evokes terrific performances, yet it is McCarthy who gives substance to that style and has the cast sing his lyrical, almost Shakesperean dialogue. It is a clash of styles that works well and proves that when paired with a talented writer (Steve Zaillian in American Gangster, William Monaghan in Body of Lies) Scott will deliver top notch work.
Michael Fassbender continues his roll of quality turns as the title character, a slick defence attorney whose penchant for greed is equalled only by the love for his fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz, sexy and angelic in equal measure). Scott opens the film with the two in mid coitus, with sex in the afternoon a representation of the success this man has and the life he wants to maintain. (A symbolic gesture also used by Sidley Lumet in his own morality play Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead).
Through his relationship with good friend, business partner and drug dealer Reiner (Javier Bardem, adding to his gallery of wild hair styles) a deal is struck with a Mexican cartel to bring in $20 million of drugs. It is a business deal headed with many warnings, as if the Counselor were staring at a stop sign dripping with blood, perched on top of a hang man’s noose.
Reiner repeatedly warns of the fatal consequences should anything go wrong, going into detail about methods of grizzly violence as if he were describing scenes from a torture porn movie. Cartel middle man Westray (a low key yet scene stealing Brad Pitt) also pushes the Counselor’s resolve. “My recommendation Counselor? Don’t do it” he warns, as if he could see dark clouds on the horizon. Proving that arrogance and greed go hand in hand, the Counselor continues onward. Hell doesn’t so much breaks loose, than seeps into his world until he’s suffocated by a choking darkness.
Redemption is not a factor in The Counselor. Throughout there is an absence of grace, especially felt through Malkina, the girlfriend of Reiner played by Cameron Diaz whose youthful, refreshing looks are replaced by an extra crispy tanned, gold toothed, tattooed exterior that bottles a seething spite for those who don’t share her Darwinian outlook. A sequence between the atheistic Malkina and religious Laura reveals the repulsion felt towards anything that holds stock in faith and is stretched even further when Malkina tries to ridicule Laura’s priest (an underused Edgar Ramirez) as he takes confession. Much like McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and The Sunset Limited, the atheism presented in The Counselor is not merely a non-belief but is emptiness defined, lacking a moral tone and predatory in nature.
It is in this world of bleak nihilism where evil flourishes. The Mexican cartels have been used as villainous foil in many films, yet it is McCarthy who justifiably presents them as an evil plague that has suffocated a country. Since the Mexican drug wears began in 1990 the amount of dead has been countless, with the only official estimate ranging between 40 to 60,000 over the last decade. Not to mention the number of rapes and abductions, all so their product – illegal, addictive, deadly – can make some rich, others high and the rest of us in suffer the social and spiritual ramifications.
In one scene, a dazed Counselor wonders through the streets of Mexico and comes across a vigil for victims of cartel violence. While they are unwilling participants, the Counselor chose to enter this world of his own free will. McCarthy and Scott portrays the consequences of that choice in brutal, haunting fashion. Is The Counsleor undeniably bleak? Yes, as should any film that presents a world without grace should be.