"The Counselor" aims for "Godfather" heights
“The Counselor” is Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay. If one is familiar with Mr. McCarthy’s fiction they will see a familiar theme of morality surrounding man’s relationship with evil while treating violence as an accessory. His novel “No Country for Old Men” dealt with choices individuals make that invite evil to infiltrate their lives. His novel was underlined with philosophical themes that did not surface in the Coen brothers’ film of the same name. Mr. McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian” dealt with man’s relationship with violence and is considered so violent that it is unfilmable. “The Counselor” may not be as violent as “Blood Meridian” but the threat remains under the surface, creating a tension that lasts throughout the movie.
The character whose profession graces the title is played by Michael Fassbender. He is the counselor to a night club owner, Reiner, (played with relish by Javier Bardem). Needing the extra cash they invest in a drug deal with a middle man Westray (Brad Pitt) on which they expect a large return. One of the ironies of the film is that there is not one time in which The Counselor gives any counsel nor seems able to identify pitfalls. He receives plenty, however, including a tip to stay away from the deal. But his lavish lifestyle and the purchase of a three-and-a-half carat engagement diamond for his girlfriend (Penelope Cruz) has put him in a bind.
Films dealing with mafioso in the twentieth century revolved around the Italian mob specifically. So far, in the early part of this century, it would be safe to say that the Mexican cartels have usurped the Italians. “The Counselor” looks and feels as though Mr. Scott and Mr. McCarthy have set out to make the first classic Mexican Cartel mafia movie for this century. Mr. McCarthy has underlined the threat of violence with a philosophy that doesn’t exactly rise to the level of “The Godfather’s” “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” or “It was only business.” Instead, we're told to find imperfections in everything, including so called perfectly cut diamonds, and grief does not have value even though it does change the griever’s view of the world. Nothing memorable they are served to us by two great performers, Bruno Ganz and Ruben Blades. The problem with “The Counselor,” however, is there are too many pieces missing and some pieces that should have been left out.
The movie has three different stories going simultaneously. The first is The Counselor’s story and why he puts his money into the investment. The second is an oil truck whose voyage from Mexico to the United States carries the destinies of all the major players in it. And the third is about Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), whose heart has no need to fear global warming as she searches for her own power.
The strength of the movie lies in the traveling gas truck. It looks as though it couldn’t make it around a corner never mind across the border but that’s the point since it’s a camouflage for its contents. It’s an ominous presence in a film and leaves a lot of dead bodies in its wake. Who is driving it also plays to what happens to the counselor and the people he’s involved with. The truck moves the story.
Malkina is the other asset to the film. She is cold and cunning and the smartest person in the film which adds to her intimidation. Mr. McCarthy wrote her character to show how women have evolved within the mafia. Malkina is no mob wife or mistress. She's the brains. The men are not as smart and they know it. She still has the sex appeal which at one time was the only quality women needed to have. This is a new concept for movies which is showing women can love sex while also being smart, powerful and ambitious as hell.
Malkina’s character grows more menacing as the film plays but Mr. Fassbender’s Counselor is a washout. When the news comes that the manure has hit the fan he is like a deer in the headlights, without any resources to escape or plans to disrupt his imminent demise. Every report of bad news brings a meltdown. Watching him sink toward his obvious fate drains the drama out of “The Counselor.” But that could be the point. The Mexican cartel is so vast and organized – structurally and technically – that once things go bad there is nothing really to do but cry. It doesn't help the story that the counselor or writers cannot come up with any options he can attempt to dig himself out of the hole. It would've helped keep the viewer interested.
Mr. Scott would have served “The Counselor” better with more precise editing. There are scenes in the movie that should not be there. Not only do they disrupt the building of dread but they serve no purpose. Another let down are characters who seemed smart in the first half of the movie only to walk into traps that are obvious a mile away. "The Godfather" may have sexist tropes such as "Women and children can make mistakes but a man can't" but at least attempting intelligence heightens the drama.
Mr. Scott gives “The Counselor” a great look and Mr. McCarthy floats some wisdom throughout the doomsday tale. They did not hit their mark of making a classic but they did open a window into an organization that will be one of the major menaces of the twenty-first century.