Meeting The Counselor on Its Terms
The Pitch-Black COmedy Critics Didn't Understand
The Counselor abounds in contrasts. Even its creators are an unlikely duo: written by Cormac McCarthy, one of the great contemporary American novelists, known for such brutal westerns as Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, and directed by Ridley Scott, who, with films like Alien, Blade Runner, and 2012’s Prometheus under his belt, has left an indelible mark on both the sci-fi genre and cinema in general. Given the impressive pedigree of these artists, not to mention the talent at work in front of the cameras, it came as quite a shock that The Counselor was universally panned by critics on initial release. Why was it panned? Perhaps because of the high expectations it was met with. The Counselor arrived on the heels of two acclaimed film adaptations of McCarthy novels, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and John Hillcoat’s The Road, and its screenplay was the first written by the novelist himself. Or perhaps because it was misunderstood. The Counselor sports neither the dynamic, engrossing narrative of No Country nor the beating heart of the central relationship of The Road.
It is, however, far funnier than both of those films, and no less serious in its concerns, which include such distressing events as the abduction, rape, and murder of Mexican girls by purveyors of snuff films. Still, what originally garnered the most negative attention was the film’s seemingly convoluted plot—the result of being filtered through its protagonist’s limited perspective—and its philosophically-minded, by turns turgid and turbid script. In essence, The Counselor is a series of elaborately staged and written conversations punctuated by moments of extreme violence, each of its characters as much defined by what he or she says as where he or she says it. In order to fully appreciate the film, one must meet it on its terms: accept that it isn’t so much a thriller or drama as a pitch-black comedy with an insidious undercurrent.
Lately McCarthy has centered his stories on pairs of characters, from the archetypal father and son in The Road to the sinner-turned-believer and irreligious intellectual in The Sunset Limited—and so it is with his most recent project. The Counselor features an ensemble cast, but rarely do more than two characters appear on screen together. The reason for this is apparent from the film’s title. Whether by choice or circumstance, all of The Counselor’s characters at one point seek counsel, attempting through conversation to conceptualize, rationalize and even outsmart the increasingly horrendous situations in which they find themselves. But as is often the case in McCarthy’s works, there is a time to choose, and a time to accept the ramifications of those choices. Words may help characters come to terms with their positions, but they cannot reverse the choices which brought them there. The best piece of advice offered in the film is this: "…we should all prepare a place where we can accommodate the tragedies that sooner or later will come to our lives."
Although at times purposefully difficult to follow, the film’s plot is actually quite simple. Having plummeted into debt for unknown reasons, but at least in part because of his purchase of an extravagant engagement ring for Laura, the Counselor invests in a drug deal that involves a shipment of cocaine from Mexico to Chicago in the tank of a septic truck. He negotiates the deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem), an eccentric nightclub owner with a taste for exotic pets, shirts, and women. In their memorable exchange, Reiner vainly attempts to dissuade the Counselor from working with the cartel by describing, in grisly detail, the effects of a mechanized noose called a "bolito." Used by the cartel to execute undesirables, the bolito is made of a nearly unbreakable alloy wire that slowly constricts around the neck of its victim, resulting in decapitation. The metaphoric potential of such a device becomes clear once the drug deal sours and the Counselor’s world begins to close in on him.
Decapitation is the most common form of death in the film, second only, maybe, to a bullet to the head. The one cartel member shot through the chest, by virtue of his car’s position and the placement of the camera, is later framed as a headless corpse. This separation of body and mind is linked to an assertion made about midway through the film, when the sage-cowboy Westray (a marvelous Brad Pitt) meets with the Counselor to discuss the severity of their situation. "If you think, Counselor, that you can live in this world and be no part of it, then all I can tell you is you’re wrong," are Westray’s departing words. They are of a pair with the words he imparts to the Counselor at the end of another of their meetings: "Let’s see if we can guess who [the cartel] really want[s] to kill... You, Counselor."
Although Westray offers no explanation, the rationale behind his claim is obvious. The Counselor lives a life of remove. By investing in the shipment of cocaine, he is profiting off the dangerous work of others, with no sweat of his own. Moreover, he is profiting off an industry which would not exist without investors like him, and which has led to the ruination of cities like Juarez, where, as Westray explains, 3,000 people died in a single year as a consequence of the drug trade. The decapitations serve as a gruesome reminder of the impossibility of detaching oneself completely from atrocities for which one is in some way culpable.
ith a pattern of spots tattooed along her back and a set of lengthy silver nails, Reiner’s vicious girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), seems to have modeled her svelte appearance on the cheetahs Reiner carts around in the back of his SUV—that is, when he’s not using them to stage mock safaris. "You like it because it reminds you of somewhere else?" Reiner asks her, referring to the convincingly savannah-like Texas landscape on one of these safaris. "No," she says, "I like it for itself." Since it’s delivered early on, one could interpret her response as a subtle defense of the film to come—a film which bears a surface resemblance to certain book-to-screen adaptations of McCarthy stories, but is entirely its own animal under that visage. Malkina’s response also illuminates the distinctive characteristics of this tract of borderland, where in place of predators and quarries are Border Patrol agents and illegal immigrants. It’s fitting, too, that Malkina would be the one to say it, given her physical likeness to Reiner’s pet cheetahs, but her spiritual kinship to their wild counterparts. The closest she ever comes to being locked in a cage is when she attends confession, ridiculing the presiding priest by accusing him of having a tainted conception of women and their sex lives.
Her accusation could be directed at any number of male characters in The Counselor, for each of them possesses a distorted view of women. "When [women] get it in their heads that they want to fuck, they’re like a freight train," explains Reiner in a scene that finds him hunkered over the bar of one of his nightclubs, signing forms for the Counselor. On a nearby wall hangs a photograph of the actor Steve McQueen dressed in a Navy man's uniform, that the Counselor can be seen studying. What looks to be the motorcycle McQueen’s character rode in The Great Escape is on display in the next room. These outdated symbols of masculinity, as defined by Hollywood in the 1960s, presumably informed the development of Reiner and the Counselor, who speak frankly and crudely about the opposite sex despite numerous waitresses being within earshot. At last moving into privacy, the men shift the focus of their conversation to Reiner and Malkina’s recent tryst on a golf course, which ended with Malkina rubbing her crotch on the windshield of his Ferrari "like one of those catfish things." The much-talked-about scene establishes, first and foremost, that Malkina used her hypnotizing sex appeal to obtain control over Reiner ("Jesus, Counselor, she knows everything"), and secondly, that the men speak in platitudes about women because they know so little about them. As opposed to Westray’s, the Counselor and Reiner’s ignorance extends to the effects of the drug trade as well—and willfully so. Unconscious of the respective costs, they can better preserve the mystique of their lavish lifestyles.
During a brief interlude early in the film, the Counselor visits Amsterdam to acquire an engagement ring for Laura. "This is a cynical business, we seek only imperfection," declares the diamond specialist with whom he meets. It’s a statement rife with irony, considering the inherent sentiment in the specialist’s business, and a clue to the scene’s subversive aims. Asked to spot the flaws in the architecture of a particular stone, the Counselor demonstrates a surprising amount of knowledge in the field, employing terms like "crown," "pavilion," "girdle" and "culet" in his analysis. Scott shoots the scene chiefly from the Counselor’s point-of-view, giving the audience the impression of inspecting the diamond with him. But of course, along with the diamond, the Counselor is looking into himself, is being made aware of the flaws of his own character. He requires a magnifying lens (one cannot help but think of a camera’s) because his normal vision is insufficient. He doesn’t take into consideration the corrupt, violent system surrounding the harvesting of diamonds in countries like Sierra Leone (as depicted in 2006’s Blood Diamond) when he goes to purchase one. Similarly, he doesn’t realize that by investing in the drug trade, he is monetarily supporting, or at the very least condoning, its devastating impact on a significant portion of Mexico’s population. A document of the gradual widening of his awareness, the film eventually sees a guilt-stricken Counselor wandering the streets of Juarez, physically and mentally immersed in a place he has lent a hand in defiling. It is his punishment for having done so—his personal hell.
Says Westray of snuff films, "The consumer of the product is essential to its production—you cannot watch without being an accessory to a murder." What’s true of snuff films is also true of The Counselor. Those who see it are implicated; forced to look upon subjects from which people ordinarily turn their heads. The film’s protagonist and his cohorts are not the only guilty parties. No, it’s everyone who has ever valued the continued comfort of their own existence over the well-being of others. And according to Scott and McCarthy and their brilliant collaborative effort, that’s just about all of us.
Nicholas Pierce is a writer and critic. He recently wrote about The Rover.