I’ve gotten into countless discussions (read: arguments) about the inherent nihilism of Cormac McCarthy’s work. I try to give the greatest living American writer (detect the bias) the benefit of the doubt. Though he stares squarely at the evil and brokenness of the human experience, I detect faint flickers of hope in books like The Road and No Country for Old Men and the cinematic adaptations of them. His most recent film, The Counselor, is an indefensible mess that might just be one of the darkest films of recent memory.
Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, a lawyer who ventures into a drug deal with business partner Reiner (Javier Bardem) and broker Westray (Brad Pitt). We never get a clear sense of what the deal is, though there’s a potential $20 million payout on the line. We never get a clear explanation for why the Counselor enters the fray in the first place, although greed and a puzzling financial desperation seems to be the most likely reasons. For reasons beyond his control, the deal goes south and the Counselor’s life becomes an indescribably horrific nightmare from which he cannot escape, and about which I am loathe to write here.
You can read the critical bashing of the film in almost every major media outlet. It is, like the script on which it’s based, a real mess. The characters wax philosophically in ways that might only impress high school students. The plot moves forward with confusing fits and starts between locations as diverse as Juarez, Mexico, and Amsterdam. I imagine many viewers will be put off by the film’s extreme violence, which seems to take a cue from Asian shock cinema from the likes of Takashi Miike or Kim Ki Duk. Yet the violence underscores McCarthy’s dark view of life.
For all its messiness, there’s something compelling about the ways in which McCarthy and director Ridley Scott juxtapose the luxurious and beautiful with the horrific and, in the process, highlight the tensions between the control we have over our actions and their influence on the world around us and the ways in which life simply turns around us beyond our control. Despite the warnings from both Reiner and Westray, the Counselor ventures into the illegal drug trade and we know things will not turn out well for him. Perhaps given his standing in society and his profession, the Counselor believes he can negotiate his way out of the future that awaits him and those he loves. It is interesting to note that the Counselor suffers only indirectly…albeit horrifically. The worst punishments are saved for those with whom he acted, which is in itself highly problematic.
In The Counselor, McCarthy, through the tattooed, cheetah-loving Malkina (Cameron Diaz), asserts that the only way to move through the world is to do so with the kind of ruthless, killer instinct that defines the life of a cheetah in the wild. Those who believe and/or act otherwise will be easy prey for those hunters. McCarthy and Scott put that violent (under)world up against a lap of luxury that only 1% of the population will ever know. The Counselor, Reiner, and Malkina drive Bentleys, drink fine liquor, wear nice clothes, and lounge poolside at beautiful mansions. It’s the recipe for the snuff-film and headless-bodies-in-a-landfill cocktail that follows, and it might well be the strongest condemnation of that lifestyle we’ve seen on screen in a long time…if ever.
The Counselor (117 mins.) is rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content, and language and is in theaters everywhere.