Published Oct 24, 2013Cormac McCarthy's first original film screenplay, The Counselor, is, in structure, a thematically focused but ostensibly piecemeal assemblage of monologues reiterating, with surprising superficiality, the same ideological assertions and nostalgic angst of his existing lexicon of texts. It has a loose narrative, much like Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo'sCosmopolis, existing primarily to support the persisting dialogue chastising modernity, addressing, amidst other things, greed, gender divisions, the diminishing effect of life's brevity, the dangers of arrogance and the inherent evil of cross-cultural enterprise and the eschewing of white male authority.
The titular counselor (Michael Fassbender) is presented as an empty vessel; he's a flippant attorney tenuously traversing the territorial world of drug trafficking while romancing his similarly hollow fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz). His crime, or fatal flaw, is that of underestimation. Though introduced shrouded in white, going down on Laura in a deliberately tender, metaphorically innocent scene of insularity, protected from the coldness the outside world is about to impose, he mistakenly assumes he's more intelligent than everyone he encounters. Underground drug lord Reiner (Javier Bardem) warns him that women are more calculating and conscious of their surroundings than they let on, just as pragmatic drug world middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) cautions him that violence and death are merely forms of currency and business in the world of Mexican drug cartels.
His loss of innocence is coupled with the exaggerated shrewdness of Reiner's love interest,Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a bisexual former dancer mastermind with a knack for manipulating men and confronting all things traditional. As she orders hits and sets into motion a series of exceedingly graphic murders, he's put on the line for the death of a minor courier, positioned as a disposable liability in an elaborate game of compounding violence.
This plot, one that merely goes through the motions of a moderately complex drug shipment hijacking and criminal underworld hierarchy, exists mainly as an example — an embodiment — of the ideas presented in the many monologues delivered by interchangeable drones, speechifying on, with the same cadence and vernacular, generic worldly observations. The verbiage, handled with utmost preciousness, is repetitive and facile, gussying up exceedingly banal, ostensibly sulky tidbits of fortune cookie wisdom with flowery excess.
Underneath the self-importance and apocalyptic severity about traversing the edge of the abyss and callously furthering the self at the expense of others is basic petulance. Antiquated traditionalism is romanticized as much as women—represented here only as virgins or whores—are vilified and amalgamated with the dreadful other that has imposed upon the male righteousness and faux sense of honour defining an idealized, classicist sense of the western front.
The misogyny isn't remotely masked, something that's particularly evident when Reiner describes a scenario (which is then visualized for anyone lacking imagination) where Malkina slips off her panties, does the splits on the windshield of his car and achieves orgasm, an image he compares to a suckermouth catfish in an aquarium. He asks, "what does something like that do to a man?" noting that she's fully aware of what she's doing, having a deeper, underlying sense of monstrosity, which, amusingly, boils down to her sexuality and her clinical gynaecological specificity.
That there is an abundance of gaps in storytelling is incidental. It's obvious from the compounding sadistic sensibility, wherein the nastiest human depravity and meanness are described and then enacted (gratuitously), that the purpose of The Counselor is to communicate male rage over losing some of their implicit power, hence the endless self-indulgent monologues.
Ridley Scott (whose auteur trajectory is inconsistent, at best) does his damndest to remove judgment or any actual vision from the text, framing everything with standard medium shots and an underwhelming sense of lethargy. The only time he actually directs anything is during the graphic decapitation scenes and occasional, deliberately methodical, unsentimental shootout. It makes the repetitive nature of the dialogue and the overly anguished delivery of rather puerile mortal concerns reach a point of maximum ineffectiveness, being as laughable as infuriating.
There's no disputing the instinct to film a script written by Cormac McCarthy (it's frigging Cormac McCarthy), but there's an Emperor's New Clothes sense to this one. The man can write the hell out of a novel or a play (and even this might make for a decent performance piece), but film is a very different, very visual medium that requires some consciousness of audience intimacy and, more importantly, a bit of vision to make on-the-nose speechifying have more of an impact than these action-free, static rants allow. (Fox)