Cormac McCarthy pens a fragmented but engrossing southwestern anti-thriller
T he Counselor is a devilishly odd and fascinating dramatic venture, a devastating multicharacter tale, a sleek-looking anti-thriller in sun-swept southwestern settings. It has a multitude of attractive aspects, but it’s also a dauntingly offbeat movie experience which, among other things, seems to have radically divided the nation’s movie reviews—highest marks from some, total rejection from others.
My take on it all amounts, I suppose, to a minority report—I see plenty of pros and cons here, but what matters most to me are what I take to be its astonishing and exceptional accomplishments. There are indeed things in this film that could have been done differently or better, but don’t let that distract you from what this picture conjures up via the peculiar concatenation of its fragmented characters and events.
The script is by novelist Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road, etc.), and it’s another of his “border” tales. In this case, that entails a flashy set of characters involved in assorted high-stakes scams and schemes, including especially an elaborate drug deal that threatens to backfire on everyone—and on the innocent even more than the guilty.
There’s a pair of love stories as well, one actively passionate and intense, the other passive, perverse and remote. Also involved: drug cartels, bizarre weaponry, pet cheetahs, gaudy desert compounds, snuff films (unseen), the international diamond trade, money laundering, musings on Catholicism, drug-smuggling in the guise of toxic-waste disposal, technologically enhanced decapitations.
The film sidles its way into these seemingly disparate situations and deflects the resolution of its sketchily coherent plot until the main characters, and the story itself, have gone well beyond the point of no return. But McCarthy and director Ridley Scott are less concerned with plot than with showing us the process of several easily recognizable character types drifting toward calamities that they can’t avoid even when they’ve had plenty of chances to foresee them.
The principal figures in this increasingly devastating misadventure are a lawyer (Michael Fassbender), his beloved Laura (Penélope Cruz), a cowboy-hatted money launderer (Brad Pitt), a lavishly hedonistic nightclub owner (Javier Bardem), and the elegantly malevolent Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Imprisoned Ruth (Rosie Perez), an astute diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz), and a grimly philosophical drug boss (Rubén Blades) all make distinctive impressions in passing, as do three characters who have contrasting reactions to the spell cast by Malkina—a would-be bad girl (Natalie Dormer), a dubiously receptive banker (Goran Visnjic), and a young priest (…dgar Ramírez) who flees when Malkina comes to confess.
The fragmented narrative and the loosely strung characterizations frustrate conventional expectations, and what the film serves up instead of tidy characterizations and plotting is a cumulative and increasingly powerful evocation of anxious dismay—of pure “dread,” as director Scott has called it. That dread comes in part from concern over the impending fates of whichever of the characters has won a modicum of sympathy from us. But here the timeless dread of all suspenseful narratives is overtaken by a more contemporary—and more genuinely haunting—kind of dread: the dread of living in a world in which all of us, innocent or not, are complicit in an evil whose consequences are increasingly manifest, and very possibly irrevocable.