Author Cormac McCarthy may have been born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, but he might as well be an adopted Texan. A number of his books, which would go on to win platitudes galore, have been recognized as some of the best stories set in the Lone Star State, and also adapted into films. This would include the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007), written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. What’s special about the new release, The Counselor, is not that it is helmed by Ridley Scott, a man who has directed such memorable films as Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. No, the special attraction is that the screenplay is from Pulitzer Prize winner McCarthy.
This isn’t McCarthy’s first screenplay; he typed one back in 1976 on his little Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter titled The Gardener’s Son, at the request of director Richard Pearce, as part of a two-hour episode of the PBS series Visions. But that was nearly forty years ago, written at a time when the author was still trying to find his voice as a novelist. That voice would come in the decades that followed with Texas-set novels Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses and the already mentioned NCfOM.
McCarthy’s The Counselor is the author’s first original screenplay to get the big screen treatment. Much like his novels, the story revolves around a morally conflicted protagonist that is cash-strapped. So to get out of the financial hole he’s dug for himself, the “Counselor,” an El Paso lawyer, decides to take the chance and get into the import/export business. Fair enough, only that the cargo is cocaine from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. With drug trafficking comes greed, the primal instincts of the characters that populate this story and their opulent lifestyles – as evident by the Counselor’s entrepreneur friend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and his pair of cheetahs – come to a head with violent consequences.
The story is pulpy on a surreal level. The characters don’t speak like we expect them to speak. That is the brilliance of McCarthy’s writing; his ability to imbue the cast with strong prose that seems perfect for reading. But the verbiage is awkward when engaged as film dialogue. The plot can’t match the prose, either, if that makes any sense. It’s dense and obtuse leaving most audiences to wonder what they just watched upon exiting movie theaters. As for violence, well the pair of beheadings offered up may be just as exotic as the cheetahs Reiner keeps as pets.
The Counselor is assembled with a noteworthy ensemble of recognizable faces. Michael Fassbender, who plays the titular role, may have the least amount of star appeal (as of now) alongside the likes of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who is the Counselor’s fiancé and someone who is oblivious to her significant other’s drug dealing ways.
Brad Pitt plays the smooth-talking Westray, the middleman who meets with the Counselor to develop the drug deal. Womanizing and charismatic and sporting a cowboy hat that echoes the one he wore in his breakout role as J.D. in Thelma & Louise (coincidentally also directed by Ridley Scott), Westray knows and understands how drug trafficking works, but he’s not immune to the imperfections that exist. There is no fail-safe.
In a film dominated by testosterone leave it to Cameron Diaz to deliver a most memorable turn as Malkina, Reiner’s girlfriend. Women by their very nature know more than they lead on, and this immigrant from the island of Barbados echoes the sentiment. Her hard knock life (sorry, Annie) has made her emotionless but also calculating. She’s also a fuh-REAK when it comes to sexual desires. No spoilers, but just brace yourself when Reiner recounts a story of what occurred when he and Malkina ventured to a golf course late one night.
With a pretzel-twisting narrative the plot relies too much on dialogue-heavy scenes trying to offer pathos for Fassbender’s character. Again, this may work in a novel, but it’s difficult to get across cinematically. Don’t get me wrong. The Counselor has the craftsmanship we’ve come to expect from a Ridley Scott production. But in the wake of the conclusion of TV’s Breaking Bad – which showed the staggering climb and fall of a highs school chemistry teacher-cum-drug kingpin – the resulting action is perfunctory with a conclusion stops you dead in your tracks, something not uncommon for a McCarthy story.
After two hours with these characters though, which feels much longer due to the amount of dialogue, I’m reminded of this famous line from crime novelist Jim Thompson. “There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot – things are not as they seem.”
Things are not as they seem, and The Counselor is proof of this.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer(s): Cormac McCarthy
Notable Cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz