Silver Screen: The Counselor ****
Early in The Counselor, the title character, a criminal-defense attorney whose expensive tastes exceed his income, looks at engagement rings with a diamond dealer played by the great Bruno Ganz in a one-off scene. Ganz’s merchant extols the virtues of the stones, rhapsodizing about their hardness, their sharpness, and their crystalline clarity. He describes the elegant structure and composition of a diamond as a kind of talisman against mortality and chaos. The perfect diamond, he says, would have no corners or textures at all— it would be pure light.
Ganz’s character might well be describing the works of Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who penned the original screenplay for The Counselor. McCarthy’s sentences are elemental, chiseled, and polished to perfection. The cumulative power of his lines and paragraphs is significant, but McCarthy’s true mastery is at the microcosmic level. Those sentences glimmer like jewels.
How much you enjoy The Counselor is likely entirely dependent on how you feel about McCarthy, author of the legendary Blood Meridian as well as the source material for All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country for Old Men. The Counselor is very much a writerly movie, probably even an overwritten one. Nearly every interaction in the film boils down to two characters having an explicitly philosophical discussion; they don’t discuss their plans and plights, they discuss the meaning of their plans and plights. It’s not always subtle, and it’s rarely realistic— but both subtlety and realism can be wildly overrated. The film is best appreciated as a collection of individual scenes, like one of Ganz’s diamonds, and yet again at the level of the sentence, where McCarthy’s dialogue crackles like pulpy noir banter whose existential concerns have burst out of their means of expression.
The plot itself is ruthlessly simple. That’s the point. The counselor in question (Michael Fassbender), whose name is never said aloud, can’t afford the luxuries he covets, but in his dealings with figures from the criminal underworld he’s met people who can. With the help of Reiner (Javier Bardem), an eccentric nightclub owner and drug runner, as well as vaguely connected middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), our man positions himself to become the financier for a multimillion-dollar drug shipment. Both Reiner and Westray warn the posh attorney that he’s not likely suited to the brutal realities of the drug trade, but his avarice is matched only by his confidence. Thus the simplicity of the story, which is pared down to perfect tragedy: A man makes a decision with an inevitable conclusion, then suffers as that inevitability constricts around him.
It’s the same relentlessly bleak worldview that has become the hallmark of McCarthy’s late-career work, and it’s as stark and directly expressed here as it’s ever been. It runs counter to the standard dramatic arc, which is one of the big reasons the back half of the film may feel like a sour disappointment, but the grim point McCarthy seeks to make is antithetical to notions of redemption.
The Counselor will suffer from some inevitability of its own, namely comparisons to No Country for Old Men. They’re both movies about the drug trade written by McCarthy and featuring Javier Bardem sporting a goofy hairstyle, and they share nearly identical thematic concerns. No Country is undeniably the better movie, both because it does more showing than telling, and because that showing is done by the Coen Brothers. But not many movies hold up against the 2008 Best Picture Oscar-winner, and to judge it as such is to ignore some excellent filmmaking by director Ridley Scott and some fantastic performances by Fassbender and Bardem. The Counselor is full of grim delights, including a running motif about the procedural details of drug smuggling that follows a shipment from Mexico to the U.S. inside a tanker truck full of raw sewage.
The Counselor’s greatest misstep is the miscasting of Cameron Diaz, who’s overmatched in her turn as Reiner’s scheming girlfriend. Her performance is all costume design— her gold tooth, cheetah-print back tattoo, and silver-painted nails like talons overcompensate for a lack of real menace and authority. Her only female counterpart is the lawyer’s saintly girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz), who’s little more than the favorite of all his objects of desire. A feminist movie this is not.
But The Counselor’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It’s a distinctive, smart, lurid thriller with a gorgeous aesthetic and a crushing payoff. It may not be Ganz’s perfect manifestation of light, but even its flaws are beautiful.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.