Counselor, The (2013)

vt The Counsellor
US, UK, Spain / 117 minutes / color / Fox 2000, Scott Free, Nick Wechsler, Chockstone, TCF Dir: Ridley Scott Pr: Ridley Scott, Nick Wechsler, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz Scr: Cormac McCarthy Cine: Dariusz Wolski Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Sam Spruell, Toby Kebbell, Rubén Blades, Edgar Ramírez, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, Richard Cabral, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Dean Norris.

Counselor - 4 Malkina goes through charade of making confession

Malkina (Cameron Diaz) goes through the charade of making confession.

A lawyer (Fassbender) who has represented various figures in the drugs trade—and who’s referred to throughout only as Counselor—is tempted into taking part in the trade himself, investing in a cocaine shipment being brought from Mexico in a sewage truck. His friend Reiner (Bardem) facilitates the deal, as does another friend, Westray (Pitt), although the latter does his best to warn him off, using an account of a vicious snuff movie to illustrate (a) that, just as if you watch a snuff movie you’re guilty of complicity in the murder, so, if you invest in drugs trafficking, your involvement is far more than merely financial, and (b) that, whenever you think there’s something so sadistic and depraved that even the Mexican drug cartels wouldn’t do it, you’re wrong.

Counselor is much in love with Laura (Cruz); he goes to Amsterdam to purchase from a jeweler there (Ganz) a diamond of extraordinary loveliness for their engagement ring. Reiner has an imposing girlfriend of Mexican extraction, Malkina (Diaz), a one-time stripper who has come north to use her brains and looks to make good—in which effort she has been remarkably successful, more successful than anyone knows. Her hobbies including watching her twin cheetahs chase down and kill wildlife. Reiner is, rightly, afraid of her at the same time as he is completely infatuated with her.

Counselor - 1 The proposal to LauraCounselor (Michael Fassbender) proposes to Laura (Penélope Cruz).

Visiting an imprisoned client, Ruth (Perez), Counselor learns that her son (Cabral), nicknamed Green Hornet, has been arrested for speeding on his motorbike and, unable to pay the fine, is languishing in some hick police cell. As a favor to Ruth, Counselor gets the son released; what he doesn’t know is that the youth is a vital link in a cartel’s chain of operations. When Green Hornet is killed, decapitated by a taut wire stretched across the highway down which he was speeding, the cartel puts two and two together make five—as does Ruth—and assumes Counselor in some way contributed to the murder. From that point he’s in danger; even more so is Laura, because the greater vengeance can be enacted upon Counselor by killing her rather than killing him.

Counselor - 2 Ruth tells Counselor of her son's plight

Ruth Rosie Perez) tells Counselor of her son’s plight.

Counselor - 3 Green Hornet

The “Green Hornet” (Richard Cabral).

For reasons which by this time we’re beginning to understand—Malkina is a ruthless psychopath and is pulling all the strings—others of the principals are in danger too. Reiner is ambushed and murdered. Westray flees to London, but there he’s seduced by a blonde (Dormer) who’s in Malkina’s pay, then murdered in the streets using a mechanical garotte. And Counselor receives a DVD that he dare not play or even touch, because Laura has vanished and he remembers only too well what Westray once told him about how the cartels make snuff movies for purposes of revenge . . .

Counselor - 6 The cats seem ready to guard the dead Reiner

After the murder of Reiner (Javier Bardem), the big cats seem ready to defend him.

Counselor - 7 The blonde easily picks up Westray in London

The blonde (Natalie Dormer) easily picks up Westray in London.

Counselor - 8 Death by bolito for Westray

Westwray (Brad Pitt) struggles in vain with the bolito that’s killing him.

McCarthy wrote this tough, gritty neonoir screenplay on spec, and it was then shopped around Hollywood. It’s presumably for this reason that The Counselor is so completely atypical of a mainstream Hollywood offering. The script is constructed less like a screenplay than a novel, demanding the intelligent involvement of the audience to piece together the gaps between scenes, as it were, and replete with instances of digressive dialogue. These characteristics infuriated some of the critics, so the movie’s reception can be described as at best mixed.

The digressions of dialogue are not wholly without purpose, however. As noted, Westray’s recollection of a snuff movie a friend (or perhaps he himself) once watched is used as a dreadful warning of the moral and indeed physical danger into which Counselor proposes to place himself and his loved ones, a warning that Counselor foolishly ignores. Another anecdote, this time from Reiner, is our first clue that Malkina is more than just the attractively zany bombshell girlfriend she appears to be, that she harbors a dangerous madness. Reiner himself halfway realizes this; again Counselor, to whom Reiner tells the story, brushes off the implications.

Reiner’s anecdote also offers one of the more startling images in mainstream cinema. One night he was out driving with Malkina in his Ferrari when she announced that she wanted to fuck the car. He pulled to a halt. She removed her panties, climbed aboard the car hood, spread her legs across the windscreen and rubbed herself to climax, with Reiner watching from within. It was, he tells Counselor, like watching a catfish work its way up and down the wall of an aquarium tank. Again, this is the kind of thing you expect to find in a novel, not so much so at the multiplex. (Depending on the kind of multiplex you go to, I suppose, but . . .)

Counselor - 5 Malkina has carnal knowledge of Reiner's car

Malkina (Cameron Diaz) has carnal knowledge of Reiner’s car, as Reiner (Javier Bardem) watches aghast.

This act of overt, aggressive, exhibitionistic sexuality by Malkina is contrasted with the movie’s opening, a scene of domestic intimacy between Counselor and Laura. It’s an encounter that’s full of affection, one that’s erotic not because it’s exotic but because it’s so ordinary: any established couple will have been there, done that, said those things. The slightly inhibited, slightly vulnerable, somewhat naive Laura—she’s clearly in denial about some of the clients her husband-to-be defends—couldn’t be further removed from the controlling, audacious, lethal femme fatale Malkina.

As for Counselor himself, played with a sort of yeoman stolidity by Fassbender as someone who’s incapable of hearing any counsel he’s offered, he’s one of the few named characters left standing by the end—well, not so much standing as cowering and sniveling—yet the devastation wreaked upon him is something harsher than mere death. He has paid most exquisitely for his errors—his lapse of moral judgement, his deafness to warnings. As a Mexican police jefe (Blades) whose aid he has tried to enlist tells him, late in the day, “The world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made.” There’s no going back from where he now is to the world he once knew.

The narrative complexity and the relentless, horrific violence—almost all of it, mercifully, offscreen—could make this a challenging movie to watch, but everything is done so well, from performances to direction to dialogue to cinematography, editing and sound editing, that the overall effect is, so long as we can shove aside our preconceptions of how movies “ought” to be, powerful and completely absorbing. It’s a mark of how conservative the movie business is that The Counselor wasn’t even nominated for any awards except the ironic Best WTF Moment (Diaz and the Ferrari) at the MTV Movie Awards.

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On Amazon.com: The Counselor (Unrated Extended Cut) [Blu-ray] or The Counselor [DVD]

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7 thoughts on “Counselor, The (2013)

  1. Great review. I’d been put off this film by reports of the digressive dialogue, but your review convinces me to add this film to the DVD rental list. Thank you.

  2. “McCarthy wrote this tough, gritty neonoir screenplay on spec, and it was then shopped around Hollywood. It’s presumably for this reason that The Counselor is so completely atypical of a mainstream Hollywood offering. The script is constructed less like a screenplay than a novel, demanding the intelligent involvement of the audience to piece together the gaps between scenes, as it were, and replete with instances of digressive dialogue. These characteristics infuriated some of the critics, so the movie’s reception can be described as at best mixed.”

    I am not sure if this was the problem for me John, but I definitely was unimpressed with the film. I saw it in a theater and reported back to my MMD with a very low grade. I did find it boring and fraudulently high minded, and possessing a convoluted screenplay. But heck we’ll disagree sometimes. The bottom line is that you have written an excellent, most engaging review on it.

    • Well, Sam, if it’s any consolation to you, I finally got around to watching Atonement last night and I liked it a lot less than you quite obviously do 🙂 — a 3- or 3.5-star experience at best. (Pam actually disliked it, and went off halfway through to read her book instead.) (I told her, “That Sam Juliano will be cross with you when he hears about this,” but she just said, “I don’t care,” and flounced off.)

      I did very much like the performances of all three Brionies — especially (and I sense I’m out on a limb here, again) that of Romola Garai, as the 18-year-old version, in that her character offered her far less to work with than the other two got. That said, Saoirse Ronan was amazing for an actress so young.

  3. hahahahahaha John!!!!!! I like when you told Pam that I would be cross at her!!! Geez!!! Oh there is no doubt that young Ms. Ronan was fantastic!! Completely agreed with you there. I am really thrilled you watched it. Seriously. I understand you were mixed but you gave it a shot. What more could I ask? 🙂

  4. I saw this film when it was released and have to say that it was one of the most boring films I’ve ever seen. So much trivial dialogue, especially near the end, that it was a trial just to sit through. To each their own, I suppose, but for me it was a poor film.

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