The New Cult Canon: 'The Counselor'
After an eight-year absence, the series returns with a Cormac McCarthy-scripted crime thriller that philosophizes endlessly (and beautifully).
[From 2008 to 2013, starting with Donnie Darko and ending with The Rapture, I wrote a column for The A.V. Club called The New Cult Canon, my homage to Danny Peary’s three Cult Movies books, which were a huge influence on my moviegoing habits as a young cinephile. My idea was to pick up where Peary’s last book left off, in 1987, and explore “The Classics, The Sleepers, The Weird and the Wonderful”—films that have inspired mad obsession since. With The Reveal, I finally have the opportunity to bring it back.]
“If you think, Counselor, that you can live in this world and be no part of it, all I can say is you’re wrong.” — Brad Pitt, The Counselor
Early in The Counselor, the counselor (Michael Fassbender), who goes by no other name in the film, heads to Amsterdam to meet with a jeweler, played by the late Bruno Ganz. He’s looking for the right diamond for an engagement ring, one somehow equivalent to the transcendent beauty of the woman he loves—no easy task, since she’s played by Penélope Cruz. A perfect diamond, the jeweler informs The Counselor, would be composed simply of light. “This is a cynical business,” he says. “We only seek imperfection.” He then keeps talking. They look at more diamonds. And in the film’s extended cut, he brings out other diamonds and talks some more. He says, “To enhance the beauty of the beloved is to acknowledge both her frailty and the nobility of that frailty. We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the gravity of our lives, that we will not thereby be made less.”
Sir, this is not a Zales.
This is not how movies are supposed to behave, certainly not when they’re star-packed crime thrillers released by 20th Century Fox. The Counselor (2013) is about a $20 million drug deal gone wrong, and the cartel violence that erupts as a result. And yet the director, Ridley Scott, working from an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, stops the action cold for this scene in Amsterdam, which is literally an ocean removed from the border-crossing intrigue in Texas and Ciudad Juárez. It is an inexplicable and intolerable detour for viewers hooked on incident, who must be wondering instead what’s happening with the sewage truck stocked with barrels of cocaine. What’s going to happen at the border? Will the truck reach its intended destination? What forces will come into conflict over its payload? When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?!
The answer to that last question is “eventually, here and there. That wasn’t enough to help the film’s box-office prospects or to please a majority of critics, including Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who declared The Counselor “the worst movie ever made.” But even O’Hehir, a fine critic, seemed to recognize that there was something special about the film, which he went on to call “simultaneously an empty and meaningless mainstream atrocity and a work of brilliant cultural subversion (although I’m not saying the latter was intentional or conscious).” Whatever your feelings about The Counselor, it refuses to play by the rules of 21st century studio fare, and we soon learn that the discursive monologuing that happens in Amsterdam is not anomalous, but the norm. There will be blood, but there will be philosophizing first.
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So let’s go back to the scene with the jeweler. (Welcome to this similarly discursive, “extended cut” edition of The New Cult Canon.) Because it is not unrelated to what’s happening in Ciudad Juárez. The Counselor is seeking a perfection that is unattainable, but he can at least try for the least-flawed diamond he can afford, which costs the type of money that prompts him to involve himself in a dangerous criminal scheme. That truck puttering north through Mexico has already sealed his fate, but he doesn’t know it yet. He’s a behind-the-scenes operator, several stops removed from the ugly business of literally filling a tanker with shit and wending through checkpoints and ambushes. The jeweler is wise to “the darkness,” to the “gravity of our lives,” but The Counselor believes himself to be above such considerations. This is the cocoon that privilege has afforded him.
The warning signs are there, but The Counselor breezes past them. He has a friendly relationship with a client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), a wealthy drug dealer with a deranged girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who likes to sip martinis while her pet cheetahs hunt down jackrabbits on the Texas plains. This is what is known, in literary circles, as foreshadowing. Reiner talks to The Counselor about “the bolito,” a motorized execution device that’s used for strangulation and decapitation. This is also foreshadowing. The Counselor later meets with one of Reiner’s associates, Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges a deal with a 4,000-percent return on investment, with the proviso that the Mexican cartels they might piss off are absolutely merciless. Sounds ominous, no? The deal moves forward.
The closest we ever see The Counselor get to the action is his agreeing to bail out the son of a well-connected client (Rosie Perez) who’s been caught driving his Yamaha motorcycle at 206 mph. That same young man will be hired to transport the sewage truck’s tracking device, which he tucks into his helmet. Later, another man strolls quietly into a Yamaha dealership, taking measurements on a bike and leaving before a salesman can even approach him. We learn that he wants to know precisely where a biker’s head will be in relation to the pavement, because he has an extremely gruesome trap to set. The Counselor does not anticipate any of these events—and believes, foolishly, that he can negotiate around a deal gone south. He is incorrect.
The Counselor was an attempt, of sorts, to revive the prestige of No Country For Old Men, which had won the Coen Brothers their first Best Picture award for adapting McCarthy’s novel of the same name. There’s some philosophizing in No Country, particularly in Tommy Lee Jones’ voiceover narration, which laments a wave of violence and evil that’s engulfed the world, and in Bardem’s performance as Anton Chigurh, who’s almost inhuman in his malevolent resolve. But it’s mostly a taut, suspenseful thriller, made with the expected Coen panache. By contrast, The Counselor feels like “un film de Cormac McCarthy,” a thoroughly deconstructed thriller where the philosophizing is thick and the action relatively thin. That’s not to take anything away from Ridley Scott, who stages the major setpieces sleekly, but it’s McCarthy’s voice that comes through the strongest here, especially in the longer cut.
What is that voice saying? To me, Westray’s big line is the thesis: You are not removed from the world in which you live. The decisions you make have consequences, no matter how far you’ve insulated yourself from them. One of the complaints leveled against The Counselor is that it’s never quite clear what, exactly, our hero has done to orchestrate this scheme overall, given that more experienced dirtbags like Reiner and Westray also have their piece of the deal. But much of these vagaries seem deliberate on McCarthy’s part: The film warns against the arrogance and thoughtlessness of the privileged, whose decisions can have a terrible impact on the less privileged, as they do here—and on rare occasions, on the privileged themselves, as they also do here. And the kind of evil our protagonist is up against, like Chigurh in No Country For Old Men or The Judge in McCarthy’s great novel Blood Meridian, is a black hole, non-redemptive and non-negotiable.
The truth is, The Counselor’s fate is sealed before the film even starts, the moment he decides to get involved, before he’s farting around in Amsterdam, looking for a diamond to match the blissful purity of his wife-to-be. Her fate is sealed, too. Making it all even more perverse is that his doom is discussed at great length, but never actually depicted. An even more daring film might have gone so far as to make none of the major deaths explicit—though one death is elegantly and chillingly handled through the delivery of a DVD—but it’s important that the punishment for our hero fits the crime. Just as his choices were made from afar, the powers-that-be seem content to allow him to twist in the wind, awaiting the inevitable from a hotel lobby in Boise, Idaho, or a seedy bar and flophouse in cartel country.
When the cartel boss at the end of the line, brilliantly played by Rubén Blades, indulges The Counselor before an afternoon nap, their conversation, dominated by Blades, is not a hearing but a sentencing. (It is also 40 seconds longer in the extended cut, which includes some funny pedantry over the word “hiatus.”) “The world in which you seek to undo the mistakes that you’ve made is different than the world where the mistakes were made,” says Blades. “You are now at the crossing and you want to choose, but there’s no choosing. There’s only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.” The Counselor is full of bizarre provocations—a scene in which Malkina humps the windshield of Reiner’s Ferrari foremost among them—and it may be difficult to understand how the life of a slick lawyer has any relation to your own. But in his own grim way, McCarthy seems to be making a practical appeal: The choices you make, major or minor, affect the world around you. So think hard about them.
Or maybe not. Here’s a film that sends audiences out with the line, “The slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.” Like Jones in No Country For Old Men, McCarthy seems to feel that nothing can stop the encroaching darkness.
Next: Speed Racer.
I love that people love this weird movie, and I always love reading those thoughts on it, but I hated it on release and then tried again with the director's cut... And I hated it all over again. I don't think this will ever be a movie that I "get".
Thanks for the piece on one of my favorite films of the 21st century, which finally got me off my ass to subscribe. I certainly agree that the unforeseeable reverberation of earlier choices is a key theme, but to me the core of the film is substantially more fatalistic than that. I forget who coined the term "moral Lovecraftianism" to describe McCarthy's worldview -- maybe Noel Murray -- but THE COUNSELOR is maybe its purest expression. The key to the film, IMO, is in Malkina's closing paean to one of her pet jaguars, which Scott's final cut shortens substantially from McCarthy's screenplay: "You can make no distinction between what he is and what he does. And what he does is kill. We of course are another matter." The Counselor has tangled with forces that he does not understand and to which he is not equal; so has Westray; and so has Malkina. They are variably prepared to confront those forces and have made their choices with varying degrees of conscious understanding, but they are all playing the same game, in which McCarthy thinks we are all at least pawns, and to which he thinks we will ultimately fall prey, perhaps spectacularly and on a global scale.