The Counselorby Kavish Chetty / 27.12.2013
Penelope Cruz was last seen gasping beneath bedsheets, the ghostly outline of her climaxing features glimpsed eerily, in Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces. Here, she once again finds herself making shapes of animal pleasure in white linen relief – this time, with Michael Fassbender, who asks her, his semi-religious, almost-virginal and future fiancé, to talk dirty to him: she obliges, with a rhythmic flourish of nervous, aroused syllables. This prologue seems to carry within it the whole mesh of forces which conspire to make The Counselor – Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay – a volatile, thrilling, deeply divisive film. Its reaction has been more than simply hostile. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, gratuitously names it the “worst movie ever made”, thereafter abridging his repulsion to: “the worst of all devil’s-candy films” and “the worst ever made by people this talented”. If the popular review aggregators give us measure of the critical temperament, then such famished figures as 48 and 35 percent define the film’s reception. Yet, in that opening scene – the charismatic promise of its major-league players; its drift toward the vainly philosophical, the obscure; its reluctant pace; and alongside all this a lurking tendency to overdo it. The Counselor can’t help but be loathed or adored.
The grander part of my own appreciations is located in the second territory. The Counselor takes its all-star cast – also including Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz – and places them into a murky drugs-and-avarice thriller on the Mexican border. It is stylishly-appointed, as befits the regal lifestyles of its principal plutocrats and professionals – Reiner (Bardem) lives in a mansion-playground, with rather sparsely-clad man-servants of bulging thigh and bicep serving drinks, and parking glisten-edged automobiles for his lavish attendees. The characters here are mostly as over-the-top: Cameron Diaz is the femme fatale in dramatic Armani-inspired couture, her face revealing the strange mystifications of plastic surgery; Brad Pitt plays Westray, an absurd confection of Southern aesthetic principles, and grimly comic philosophical monologues. The writing, as a whole, is marvelously absent of thriller-cinema’s usual complement of clichés and tropes – except for an articulate misogyny which informs many of the film’s detour dialogues – and, is lengthy, abstract, complex, revealing glimpses and occulting secretively, much like the plot itself, or even, with much less mastery, like this goddamn sentence with its breathless sprawl of commas; let’s mercilessly bring this to a grammatically vulgar close right here.
Fassbender plays the nameless counselor, a Texan lawyer who slips into the murk of drug-trafficking through business partner, Rainer. It will not ruin the plot to mention that a drug deal goes wrong, so rarely does the converse occur in thrillers. The film certainly does not move like an ordinary thriller, bereft as it is of mainstream cinema’s maddening desire to spoon-feed its audience, or move with relentless exposition through action setup and chase sequence. The mark of an enormously talented writer behind its architecture is revealed early on, when wordy exchanges march long beyond average concentration spans, and centre themselves on greed, etymology, sex habits (including some rather nymphomaniacal exhibitions), alternate universes and decision-making, diamonds, and of course, the perils of the underworld. At times elusive, or cryptic, at others possessed of a brilliant satire, the film marshals the best acting talents of its subjects to keep it intriguing, mysterious.
The film conducts itself with an ambience of mounting dread, the second act turning all the cautionary measures of the first against our nameless protagonist. In the earlier half, we learn that a motorcyclist named “The Green Hornet” will be traveling across the border at breakneck speeds, heading for a nondescript sewage truck containing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of drugs. We also learn of the Mexican drug cartels and their splendid rituals of violence; add into this mix, some unidentified contenders who are watching from afar, and aiming to disrupt the smooth passage of the “llello” (pronounced “yayo”, or “cocaine”, if you haven’t seen bust-mouthed Cubano kingpin Tony Montana shift his powdery pinky into the edge of his nostril in Scarface) from the border to Chicago. As such, all the details of a classically-appointed drug freight thriller are in attendance – but the film moves with such exquisite languor, such overblown disquisitions (meditative crises), and such murderously uneventful action sequences, as to perfectly disrupt expectations. Certainly, it is not without its faults and ham-ups, but on the whole, The Counselor presents an eloquent mainstream anti-mainstream thriller, a slow pawing-about with genre that is much above the typical incarnations we have grown too familiar with.