Movie lore is full of stories about great American writers being chewed up in Hollywood. William Faulkner and F Scott Fitzgerald are among those who famously endured the Barton Fink experience at the hands of the studios.
The Counsellor is a curiosity in that a celebrated novelist from a later era, Cormac McCarthy (whose original screenplay this is), wasn’t working to the demands of disdainful executives. He did this all by himself, with full artistic freedom. And he has still come up with a script as convoluted and derivative as one fed through the studio system mincing machine.
At times, The Counsellor seems like a Sam Peckinpah movie done in the style of Basic Instinct. It has the dusty Mexican settings and picaresque violence you expect from films such as Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Michael Fassbender’s “Counsellor” even dresses like Warren Oates’ anti-hero in Alfredo Garcia). However, when Cameron Diaz’s villainess Malkina is shown with her legs open, grinding her pelvis on the windscreen of a sports car as Javier Bardem’s drug baron sits at the steering wheel below, it’s as if we’ve been transported to the world of Paul Verhoeven at his seamiest. “One of those catfish things, one of those bottom feeders you see going up the side of the aquarium, sucking its way up the glass,” is how Bardem memorably describes the sight from his point of view.
McCarthy’s intentions with The Counsellor are hard to fathom. At times, his script hints at a socio-political agenda, as if he is trying to address the ongoing warfare between drug cartels in Mexico. There is plenty of macabre humour. The film has the quality of a morality fable in which all the characters are punished for their extreme greed. It seems intended, too, as a Wages of Fear-style thriller, but whenever the tension is cranked up, there will inevitably be a joke or piece of surrealistic imagery thrown in which changes the mood. A pet cheetah will nestle the corpse of a dead body or a man in fear for his life will suddenly start chatting up a woman whose mobile phone he wants to use.
Ridley Scott is as famous for his commercials as he is for his features. The Counsellor is full of sleekly shot set-pieces demonstrating his visual flair. Many could work as short films in their own right. The opening, in which we first see the shapes of the two lovers (Fassbender and his girlfriend Penélope Cruz) moving beneath white sheets like animated alabaster statues, shows him in tender and intimate groove. There is a brilliant sequence later on in which a killer (“the wireman”) stretches wire across a deserted highway at just the height of a motorbike rider with entirely predictable results. The problem is that none of these bits and pieces fit very well together.
The film-makers are keen in general on their garrotting and beheading. The film, which has a detached tone, explodes from time to time into garish and extreme violence. Overall, though, the emphasis is more on dialogue and and on keeping the wheels of a very complicated plot turning than it is on action.
The last time Fassbender worked with Scott, he played a robot in Prometheus. His role here is almost equally one-dimensional. The “counsellor” is a lawyer in cahoots with drug dealers and gangsters. He is going to marry Laura (Cruz) and wants money. That’s why he becomes embroiled in a drug deal hatched by his friend Reiner (Bardem). The “counsellor” behaves in a rational enough way but, in melodramas about Mexican drug cartels as in Greek tragedy, when the fates turn against a character, he is powerless to protect himself.
The Counsellor provides some incidental pleasures along the way. Among them is another of Brad Pitt’s colourful character turns. He plays the amoral Westray, a shady womaniser in a cowboy hat who delights in telling Fassbender what the cartels will do to him if he betrays them or the deal goes wrong. Westray is similar in temperament to the assassin for hire he played in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. That is to say, he is jaded, cynical and sleazy – and as far away from Pitt’s usual leading man type as can be imagined.
Bardem is entertaining, too, in a role that allows him to wear garish Hawaiian shirts and to upstage the deadpan Fassbender shamelessly. Diaz relishes playing an exaggerated version of the femme fatale type you expect in any self-respecting film noir. It’s refreshing, too, to see the motor-mouthed Rosie Perez back on screen, this time playing a young cartel member’s imprisoned mom. Enjoyable though they are, these performances all come close to caricature. There is nobody here who projects the sense of unbridled menace and malice that Bardem brought to his role as the hitman Chigurh in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men (2007).
McCarthy’s screenplay is wilfully oblique. He seems determined not to provide much back story: the Counsellor himself doesn’t seem to have a name. When a shady character from his past bumps into him and begins taunting him at a polo match, we’re not told what connection the two men have. When a beautiful woman is kidnapped by the cartel members, it is left to us to imagine what will happen to her.
The Counsellor has tremendous production values and a heavyweight cast, but it still feels like an inside joke. The film-makers can’t work out whether they’re making a bloody revenge tragedy or a slightly facetious caper movie. The result, given all the talent involved, can only be deemed a grievous disappointment.