In Defense Of THE COUNSELOR
There are spoilers for The Counselor ahead.
You’re probably not going to like The Counselor.
I don’t mean that as a slight on you; The Counselor is hard to like, and the movie makes no concessions to help the viewer like it. It’s a meeting of the cold, emotionless aesthetic of Ridley Scott and the cold, nihilistic aesthetic of Cormac McCarthy and together they have made a movie that’s as scaly and tough and pretty and, yes, cold as a lizard’s skin. The movie takes place on the Texas/Mexico border and is set mostly in the daytime yet it is endlessly chilly.
A lot of people hate The Counselor. Salon has called it the worst movie ever made. The film tanked at the box office, and I can only assume its Cinemascore is in the toilet. But it would be strange if people liked the movie, since the movie doesn’t want to be liked. It’s keeping you at arm’s length, it’s making you feel uncomfortable, it’s undercutting itself at every turn to distance you from the characters and it’s only allowing you to feel suffocating dread and hopelessness. That doesn’t engender strong Cinemascore numbers. People like to be coddled and helped along and made, ultimately, to feel good.
Edgar Wright helped me crystallize what this movie is when he tweeted his belief that it’s Scott’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. I’m mad that he came up with that, because he’s a great filmmaker and he should leave the masterful film analysis to those of us who have nothing else - but he’s totally right. They’re not the same movie by any means - Scott would never know how to give a movie the lusty, booze-breathed, sweaty atmosphere of life that every Peckinpah film has - but they occupy similar psychic space. They’re both desperation movies, movies that find the ugly face of utter hopelessness in the dusty place where Mexico and America meet.
Michael Fassbender’s Counselor is certainly no Bennie. The Counselor is a character so passive he’s barely even there; in the course of the movie he makes maybe a handful of actual decisions, otherwise he’s simply showing up where people are and having them talk at him. The biggest decision he’s made - to get involved with Reiner’s (Javier Bardem) drug ring - has already been made when the movie opens. And because this is a film that withholds like a bad parent, we never know why he made that decision - it’s mentioned once that he has money problems, and we know that he wants to marry his love, Laura (Penelope Cruz), but it’s never quite explained.
The Counselor is all set to make himself some quick and easy money in the drug world when he finds himself caught up in a misunderstanding so broad as to be almost comedic. He helps spring the drug money courier son of client Ruth (Rosie Perez, one of many strong actors making strangely brief appearances. John Leguizamo and Dean Norris have a scene together late in the movie that feels like it came from another film, especially because neither character ever appeared before or show up again after) from prison, and the kid is almost immediately killed in the line of duty. He races through Texas’ empty plains on a jetbike, carrying important… something, I don’t really know what it is, some sort of electronic component, because the movie is so withholding, that is worth more than his life. A hired killer sets up fishing line across the road, decapitating the boy and allowing the bad guys to get the thing.
Somehow the Mexican cartel for whom he works thinks The Counselor is in on this, and so they come after him. The story’s film noir shape makes itself known here, as we see that The Counselor is a helpless figure caught up in a larger scheme over which he has no power. Again, the movie is so withholding that I’m not quite sure if his involvement is purely accidental or part of some larger plan, but in terms of his own life he’s trapped in a mulching machine and he never saw it coming. Fassbender is stuck playing a man who is just trying to survive and is discovering that maybe survival isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Fassbender ends up being eclipsed in scene after scene by actors playing more dynamic, more interesting characters. Brad Pitt is Westray, another drug guy who gets caught up in it all with The Counselor, and he’s a big figure, a strutting guy in Western shirts given to telling long tales to both illustrate his point and foreshadow future events. If Brad Pitt wasn’t playing Westray you’d ask the actor to do a Brad Pitt thing in the role, although possibly not going so far as to make his delivery of speeches weirdly stilted (Pitt cannot adopt non-Pitt cadences at all. See 12 Years A Slave for this - he ends up sounding like a kid in a middle school play). Bigger yet than Pitt is Bardem’s Reiner, a thoughtful drug lord who has two pet cheetahs and is tortured by the memory of his girlfriend fucking his car windshield, a moment that was far too gynecological for him.
That girlfriend is Cameron Diaz, and she’s giving the biggest performance of all. If there’s a continuum in the movie that begins with Fassbender’s quiet, reactive Counselor, Diaz’s Malkina is at the furthest point away from that. The scene where she fucks the windshield isn’t just told, it’s shown (the only flashback in the movie, as far as I recall - for a film where the lead character’s name isn’t even given, that’s a big deal), and Diaz goes all the way. It’s a weird scene, a shocking scene, a silly scene, and will probably be the thing for which The Counselor is most remembered. I don’t think Diaz quite makes Malkina work, but goddamn do I respect the effort she’s putting into it. There’s a fearlessness involved in doing a split on a windshield while Bardem - with yet another epic bad hairdo - looks up at her pussy goggle-eyed with bafflement.
Pussy, it turns out, is a defining characteristic of both The Counselor and Reiner. We first meet The Counselor when he’s under the covers with Laura (literally obscured from our vision), and he goes down on her in a way that’s fairly graphic for an American movie. She even has an orgasm, something that I know freaks the MPAA out. The Counselor is at home between Laura’s legs, a man who has looked into a vagina and found happiness. Reiner, meanwhile, is actually traumatized by what he saw; he likens Malkina’s vagina to a catfish, and delivers this story to the Counselor in a way that is usually reserved for a character recounting a moment where their very view of the world is shaken beyond repair.
So what does it mean that Laura ends up dead (headless after getting head, no less) and Malkina ends up being the mastermind whose actions kill almost every character in the movie? The sexual politics of The Counselor are strange and, like every other part of the movie, nihilistic. Malkina isn’t just the mastermind of the plot, she’s been the force behind Reiner always. He explains that she’s the one with the business sense, she behaves in ways that are normally masculine, including coming on to Laura in a heavy fashion. Her pussy is ugly and frightening, while Laura - who is as passive as The Counselor, and who is the good girlfriend who exists only to be killed to make the main character feel bad - has a beautiful, enjoyable pussy. As sexual as Malkina is - and as much as Reiner talks about fucking - the only time we see that couple truly together (besides a quick bit at the beginning) is that soon-to-be-infamous windshield scene. We see that The Counselor and Laura have a serious, solid sexual connection again and again, including a scene that has one of the most honest depictions of the thrill and embarrassment of phone sex I’ve ever seen in a movie. And while we’re on the sexual politics of the movie, note that Westray understands his biggest weakness is women, and in the end he is undone when Malkina sends a beautiful young girl (Natalie Dormer) to seduce him and get access to his offshore bank accounts. Reiner thinks that Malkina knew exactly what she was doing to him when she fucked the windshield - she uses sex as a blunt object weapon.
There are no real good guys in The Counselor. This is a drug movie without any police presence - the only cops who show up in the course of the film are cartel hitmen in disguise. This is a movie where every character is, technically, the bad guy, but where there’s a bigger bad guy lurking just offscreen. McCarthy’s script uses the Mexican cartels as a faceless, wrath of God style menace - they can be anywhere, even a Boise hotel lobby. They will do anything to anyone, including film the murder of a woman and her body’s subsequent sexual abuse. They are not, Westray explains, driven by emotion but purely by business. It’s a movie about greed taken to its most epic limits, a movie about people who will do anything for money. People who have plenty of money - even The Counselor, with his avowed money problems, starts the movie by flying to Amsterdam to buy a very expensive diamond engagement ring for Laura. These aren’t poor people struggling, they’re rich people trying to get richer, stepping on each other’s faces for another dollar. These are people who deserve it. It's a drug movie without any drug use - drugs are just the product, and this could have just as easily been a movie about any other precious good.
The movie never talks about blood diamonds, but those diamonds do come back bloody in the end as Malkina, triumphant, is deciding how to move her new riches around. Diamonds make the most sense. The Counselor is last seen howling in a Juarez hotel room, snot hanging from his nose, in his hands a DVD containing the most horrific footage imaginable. Reiner is dead, accidentally shot during an attempted kidnapping, his cats left free in the wild. Westray is dead, victim of the horrific bolito, a mechanical device that all but decapitates you. Laura is dead, her headless body in a pile of Mexican trash. It’s an ugly ending, an apocalyptic finale, but a fitting one. This isn’t a world where things turn out okay, and it isn’t a world where surviving is always winning.
I ended up being unable to write a review of The Counselor before it came out. I was blocked by the film, by the fact that it worked on me but also left me profoundly unsatisfied. Will this be a movie like Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, one that gets rethought in ten or twenty years? I definitely believe The Counselor will be reconsidered when Ridley Scott dies; it’s his strongest movie in years, the most coherent and the most interesting. Scott has been a director whose films have become increasingly divorced from any sort of emotion; the last decade has seen Scott making movies that are technically strong but lack any punch. No one can claim The Counselor lacks punch. Scott’s attention to detail matches nicely with McCarthy’s sparse style; the two complement each other. The Counselor is a slow, long movie that is a constant descent into being a bummer, but it’s never boring. It’s always lovely, even when it’s so ugly it’s hard to watch. It’s as unsentimental a movie as any Hollywood has released since There Will Be Blood.
You probably won’t like The Counselor, but I think you should see it. Not every film wants to be liked.