Full disclosure upfront: my favourite author is Cormac McCarthy. Suttree. Blood Meridian. All The Pretty Horses. The Crossing. There’s four masterpieces right there. Give me time and I’ll make cases for Outer Dark and The Road too. As an aspiring writer, his is the level of ability I measure my own attempts against, and its no wonder I find myself falling dismally short. If I’m reading McCarthy, I can’t even write at all. Game over. So there’s that. The news of a new film written for the screen directly by my literary idol? There was no way I was going to miss this.
Second disclosure: I’m cautious when it comes to Ridley Scott. Alien and Blade Runner aside, I find his films to be deeply superficial. He has a tremendous eye for what’s going to look good, granted, but this aesthetic success is frequently maligned by a lack of substance, flabby plotting, rote performances or a mixture of the above. The whole never really seems to add up to the sum of its parts. It was true last year for Prometheus. Gorgeous to look at. Riddled (no pun intended) with problems.
McCarthy and Scott make for strange bedfellows. McCarthy’s books have always felt ancient, even The Road with its obliterated future. The apocalyptic history of Blood Meridian seers the brain like the devil’s scripture. Even the smaller novels come with this aura of oldness, as though unearthed. His tales are often allegorical, usually for something pretty bleak. Rich and substantive, the prospect of this weightiness rubbing off on Scott is heartening.
Sadly, strangely, things seem to have gone the other way. For the first hour at least, The Counsellor is a sleek, shimmering, Esquire double-spread of a movie. A collection of lifeless scenes in which beautiful people sit in expensive rooms and talk obliquely about some questionable things. McCarthy’s script sags under its own portentousness. All of our significant characters know each other already… so no one is introduced. Instead they swap seats in each others’ apartments, bars or hotel lobbies, talking the film up to the pivotal moment when it all starts to go wrong.
Because of course it all starts to go wrong.
Michael Fassbender plays the titular Counsellor. We meet him rolling around under the covers with the love of his life, Laura (Penélope Cruz). He has some connection to lavish entrepreneur Reiner (Javier Bardem) and between them, it appears, they are arranging a drug deal, throwing their lot in with the immoral cartels of Mexico. The Counsellor’s reasons for involving himself in this are never made explicitly clear. Why does anyone knowingly walk toward danger? Presumably its to cover the weighty cost of the engagement ring he buys for Laura in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, his choice will mark the rest of the film and define the fates of all of those around him. Watching over all of this is Reiner’s new squeeze Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a person who, we are quickly led to believe, puts her own greed first and foremost. Can you see where this might be heading?
The Counsellor doesn’t heed advice when he’s given it (chiefly by Brad Pitt’s cautious, scene-stealing Westray) and when things turn sour and he seeks it, he struggles to find the advice he wants. After all that talk upfront, when things take a turn it happens disarmingly quickly. The game is over before the Counsellor even knows it. It is here, in the film’s more urgent second hour that things come together. The film becomes compelling as the varying factions in this shady deal-gone-wrong feel the fires of hell at their heels. But this is a Cormac McCarthy tale – one that opens with two bodies underneath sheets for that matter – and anyone anticipating a happy ending or righteous vengeance will be setting themselves up for disappointment.
Elements of The Counsellor are extremely gratifying. Events wind in with grim inevitability, and once you step back from it, it’s a pretty svelte story told. The problem is that McCarthy’s screenplay does it’s best to obfuscate the basics. Unable to showboat his poetic prose, McCarthy pours it into the mouths of his characters. And while it’s still undeniably beautiful, the speechifying sometimes feels laboured if not downright awkward. Everyone speaks with one, wistful, philosophical voice. And what may sound profound coming from a shady cartel connection doesn’t have quite the same effect when given to Cameron Diaz’ Malkina.
The treatment of women in these words is also, frankly, worrying. McCarthy’s work has never prominently featured women before, and watching The Counsellor one can perhaps see why. Laura and Malkina are repeatedly marginalised by their male counterparts, viewed primarily as sexual conquests, afforded little credibility outside of their own beauty. Malkina in particular is presented like a stilted femme fatale as constructed by a teenage boy; a sex-addled, vacuous siren only interested in her own gains. Diaz flounders slightly in the role, game enough to chew over the wonky dialogue, but frequently giving the impression that the water’s right up to her head. By contrast, poor Cruz is wasted. One hopes that McCarthy writes his women the way he does here in an attempt to show the cost of his male characters’ shortsightedness, and not to forward his own opinions. Whatever the case, the man can’t write sexy. It’s occasionally embarrassing.
Scott’s direction is sure handed. There’s a hot, dusty heat to proceedings, occasionally contrasted with cool blues when we visit Amsterdam or London. And despite the flash cars and hyper-modernity on display, The Counsellor feels like a lost thriller from the 60’s, trying to be provocative without giving away the intellectual high ground.
The movie’s close will confound some. No Country For Old Men will have given some the heads-up on how McCarthy’s tales can suddenly drop you into the void, but the more apt comparison here would arguably be Se7en, as The Counsellor narrows itself menacingly down to a finale just as (if not more) cruel. Fassbender sells this admirably, but one can’t help but wonder whether a more measured, humane approach to character building might’ve given everything more weight.
All of which makes this a frustrating film that has greatness within its grasp, but doesn’t quite achieve it. There are as many things I loved about this film as there are things I lament. I will definitely want to see it again, but I can’t outright call it the success I wanted it to be. Another not-quite-but-nearly for Ridley Scott.