Review: The Counsellor

Our complicity as onlookers sharpens Cormac McCarthy’s bleak morality tale, Duncan Wu finds

November 14, 2013

Source: PA PicSelect

A one-time deal: the Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) and Reiner (Javier Bardem) are partners in high-end drug trafficking in an arthouse flick gone wildly off the rails

The Counsellor
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt
Opens nationwide on 15 November

‘Have you been bad?’ Laura asks the Counsellor. Had she bothered to read McCarthy’s novels she would not treat moral questions so lightly

The Counsellor is that most unfashionable of cinematic beasts: a moral tale. Michael Fassbender is the Counsellor (the American term for a lawyer), engaged to Laura (Penélope Cruz), and he wants $20 million to begin his married life, earned with the minimum of effort. Something for nothing? Turn to the drug cartels. As he explains to his business partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem), “It’s a one-time deal,” which he considers adequate justification for his engagement in high-end drug trafficking with the most ruthless criminals in Latin America.

Most US reviews of The Counsellor have registered confusion and disappointment, and inevitably this film will not please everyone. The celebrity of its cast, and the expectation it will pass muster as thriller or action film, are bound to mislead. Instead, think of it as an arthouse flick gone wildly off the rails and you will be primed to enjoy its many rewards.

I like best those films that plunge me into an environment so alien I am disoriented for the first 20 minutes. The Counsellor manages that with ease. It is a testing, challenging drama: you won’t want anyone texting their so-called friends or unwrapping sweets nearby – and, if they persist, have them forcibly ejected.

The Counsellor boasts a highly literate, intelligent script by Cormac McCarthy, probably the greatest living American writer; if you enjoyed Blood Meridian, Cities of the Plain, The Road or his other fictions, you will find this one hugely entertaining. That is in part because McCarthy has found the perfect collaborator in Ridley Scott, who is now at a point in his career where he need prove nothing – and his understated handling of the drama is faultless.

Fassbender embodies a smooth confidence bordering on outright smugness in the opening scene when he administers cunnilingus on his girlfriend.

“Why don’t you just tell me what you want me to do with you?” he says.

McCarthy’s sense of dramatic irony has never been sharper: the Counsellor’s deal with the cartels is about to place everything he values in the balance.

“You’ve ruined me, you know that,” Laura simpers.

“I hope so,” he replies, innocent of the resonance that glib statement will soon acquire.

“Have you been bad?” Laura asks the Counsellor on the evening he proposes. Had she bothered to read McCarthy’s novels she would not treat moral questions so lightly. The correct answer to her question is “Yes”, although that would hardly do justice to the scale of her boyfriend’s avarice, made repellent by the arrogance with which it is carried.

What on earth is she doing with such a scumbag? Well might one ask. That is, of course, the point. She must pay the price for her delusions. The alacrity with which the Counsellor accepts blow jobs from female clients might have told her something. Or she might have glanced a second time at his business associates. Only the most self-deceiving fool would fail to recognise criminality in the bug-eyed, shock-haired Reiner, all primary colours and bling, incarnated by Bardem at his creepiest.

Though not as creepy as Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who ridicules Laura’s religious beliefs with a smile and shake of the hand.

“Just rattling your cage,” Malkina says, “What a world!”

“You think the world is strange?” asks Laura.

Malkina laughs: “I meant yours.” She has condemned Laura as a hypocrite, although Laura doesn’t seem to realise it.

Cameron Diaz in The Counsellor

Malkina’s clear-sightedness is almost redemptive, but she is no role model and no saviour. How could she be? She has cheetah markings tattooed across her undulating body and engages in intimate relations with cars – that’s right: not in cars but with them. The scene in which she shags a Ferrari is visualised in grotesque detail by Reiner who, one would have thought, might regard it as a joke. Instead he is traumatised by it. “It was hallucinatory. Something like that changes you forever. It was too…gynaecological. Like being half in love with easeful death” (if not exactly what Keats had in mind when he coined that phrase in Ode to a Nightingale).

When, towards the end of the film, Malkina gives Reiner one last chance to commit to their relationship, we are in no doubt it is his only chance for survival.

She tells him he reminds her of someone, “Someone who is dead but who is not coming back.”

Isn’t that a cold thought? “The truth has no temperature,” she tells him – an aphorism that reveals her to be wiser and more powerful than him.

Or indeed the Counsellor, whose self-righteousness blinds him to the extent of his corruption. According to US law, he is an officer of the court. What, then, is he doing with the debauched, immaculately turned-out Westray (Brad Pitt), who counsels him against jumping into bed with the cartels?

“I’m a little taken aback at the cautionary nature of this conversation,” sneers the Counsellor, scoffing at the scruples of a bandit. McCarthy thus constructs a scene in which the incipient criminal (a counsellor) is counselled to do the morally correct thing by an incipient counsellor (a criminal).

That elegant irony is compounded by the eloquence with which Westray articulates his opinion of the cartels. “I’ve seen it all, counsellor. It’s all shit. It’s all shit. The beheadings and the mutilations. It’s just business. They gotta keep up appearances.”

But that does scant justice to the cartels, from whom this film withholds its fire: at least they abide by a consistent morality.

At his lowest point, the Counsellor seeks out a former client, Jefe (Rubén Blades), who parleys with the cartels on his behalf.

“My advice?” Jefe reports back, “I would urge you to see the truth of the situation you are in. You continue to deny the reality of the world you are in. Life is not going to take you back.”

Given that the subject of this film is the Counsellor’s journey out of vanity and self-deception, it was clever of its makers to have given the part to Fassbender, whose suave looks appeal to our sympathies.

“You ever seen a snuff film?” Westray asks the Counsellor. “Because the consumer of the product is necessary to its production. You can’t watch it without being implicated in a murder.” An apt remark from someone who performs the dual function of gangster and moral guide. It is McCarthy’s way of signalling impatience with films that flatter our prejudices and send us into the street with a self-satisfied grin on our faces.

Readers of his novels will be aware he is not going to let anyone off the hook that easily, good-looking or not. Accordingly, the characters in The Counsellor divide down a single fault-line: the strong and the weak. And the weak shall pay for their sins. Can we say, as viewers, we are not complicit in their fate? Can we claim to be their moral superiors? Jefe performs a choric function as he tells the Counsellor, “It is our foulness of character that has brought us to the edge of ruin”.

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