Mark Reviews Movies

The Counselor


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt

MPAA Rating: R (for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 10/25/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 24, 2013

"If you think you can live in this world and not be a part of it, then the only thing I can say to you is good morrow."

Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counselor suggests that career criminals have a lot of downtime, during which, apparently, they think a lot about what their chosen profession means, how they justify their work to others and themselves, and what their fate will be for taking part in the enterprise. These are intelligent characters, and they speak in a way typified by the line of dialogue quoted above—matter-of-factly but with a certain idiosyncratic flourish. The lesson of the film seems to be that it's best not to get caught up in the affairs of people who can talk with such flair and knowledge about the ultimate nihilistic ends of their lifestyle.

This is not so much a character study as it is a study of attitude. The characters in the film talk and talk. In the background, there are some developments that could be considered the makings of a plot.

There's a truck moving from a sewage treatment plant in Mexico to the United States, and we can guess that there's something more to the truck because of its starting point. The cover is too ingenious for someone not to take advantage of it (Who would want to search through a vehicle that clearly announces it has that in its tank?). There's a kid on a motorcycle driving down desolate highways at night at such speeds that one character, upon hearing the number, says, "That's not a speed; that's a weight." A shootout occurs on a desert road, and in a long and wordless scene, a man measures and adjusts the height of a steel wire he's tying from one side of another deserted highway to the other—a fiendish plan to stop someone dead in his travels.

We have no real sense of who these background players are. They are merely pawns in a scheme that doesn't amount to much except a lot of business that only matters to the people paying for these events to happen.

There are almost two separate films here: one that documents the unfolding of a series of double-crosses in almost exclusively visual terms (which director Ridley Scott conveys with efficiency) and another in which the characters discuss the potential and, eventually, very real consequences of being involved in a world that is brutal and unforgiving. When they speak, they do so in general terms, given that they are physically separated from but still financially and morally responsible for the dealings and violence that transpire. They are unlikely philosophers attempting to rationalize that—through their awareness of it—they are somehow immune from the very world about which they constantly warn the protagonist.

He is known only as the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), an attorney in El Paso with a pretty, loving girlfriend named Laura (Penélope Cruz). What we eventually notice about him is that he doesn't talk much, which is odd, given that his is a profession that relies on talking. In the opening scene, he tells his girlfriend to say what she wants him to do to her in bed. When he later proposes to her, it's essentially wordless. He simply places the ring on the table and, after a pause, asks what her answer is as if he had actually asked her a question. When he does speak, it's often to glean information or to make a joke, leading a client of his, whose own made-in-jest request lands him in a heap of trouble, to call him a smart-ass.

We don't need to know much about him, and McCarthy's screenplay ensures that we don't learn much about him, either. We do know that he's in financial trouble for unknown reasons and has decided to take up on an offer from Reiner (Javier Bardem), a man who's involved in some shady dealings with a Mexican drug cartel in order to start and run a series of night clubs, to join him on his next illegal business venture.

That is the extent of the plot with which the Counselor is directly involved, and the film details the diabolical way a chain of events over which he has no control or influence turns on him. In one of his discussions about the criminal underworld, Reiner explains the gradual payoff to this growing threat in the description of a nefarious device called a bolo, which consists of a steel wire and a mechanical gear that slowly and unstoppable constricts around the victim's neck, guaranteeing one of three possible means of grisly death. It's both metaphorical and literal foreshadowing.

That's one of the many strengths of McCarthy's screenplay, but the primary one is how well he defines these characters to fit the broader context of a philosophical rumination on the ramifications of crime. All of the major characters have an excuse. The Counselor is desperate. Reiner believes he can blame all of his personal failings on the fact that he's attracted to intelligent women, like Malkina (Cameron Diaz, distracting in her tendency to over-enunciate), the current woman on his arm whom he believes is going behind his back.

The most fascinating of McCarthy's creations in The Counselor is Westray (Brad Pitt), a middle man with no loyalties and a sense that his lack of allegiance somehow makes him superior to everyone else in the game. He's pragmatic in his constant issuances of cryptic cautions to the Counselor ("I can't advise you, counselor," he says in a sort of refrain; we later figure out it's both present-tense fact and subjunctive forewarning) but idealistic in his belief that, at any moment, he could just run off to a monastery and live a happy life. These character may say—in stirring language—they understand this world but not where it counts. They don't get to choose their own ending; it's chosen for them.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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