This is one fine neo-noir, expertly directed by Ridley Scott with a host of superlative star turns from Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Brad Pitt.
The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott. In cinemas around New England.
By Gerald Peary
Though trashed by most critics, spurned by audiences, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is a movie to catch quickly before it leaves the theatres. Its harsh reception is inexplicable to me. This is one fine neo-noir, expertly directed by Scott with a host of superlative star turns from Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Brad Pitt. And there’s a challenging, arresting screenplay, his first, from the masterly novelist, Cormac McCarthy. Honestly, what is there not to like? Not to admire?
McCarthy’s objective here is, quite clearly, to update Joseph Conrad in locating “the heart of darkness.” He finds it with the dreadful Mexican drug cartels, which cause 3,000 deaths a year, mostly of innocent people, just in the besieged border city of Juarez. As someone explains in the film, all those kidnappings and beheadings, that’s just everyday business. That’s only the surface: you have no idea of what evil can be done! When the take-no-prisoners drug lords decide to take prisoners.
The unnamed Counselor (Fassbender) has heard all the above. He’s a lawyer in El Paso, across a Cambridge-to-Boston-like bridge from downtown Juarez. Citizens of El Paso, one of the most peaceful cities in the USA, are vigilant about not getting involved with nefarious doings across the Mexican border. Except for an ornery, reckless, stupid few. The Counselor signs on for a major international drug deal which, if all goes well, will make him a fortune.
McCarthy’s script is talky and heady and rich in philosophic conversation; but, where it pays to go silent, it does, refusing to have characters explain why they do things, to spoonfeed the audience “motivations.” Why does the Counselor, a comfortable Texas yuppie, risk all, even after a stark warning from an experienced drug-selling middleman (a flashy Brad Pitt, in cowboy hat and boots) to stay clear?
We get the idea, though the Counselor never says so, that he’s suddenly low on money. He travels all the way to Amsterdam to meet with a special jeweler (a creaky, saggy, much-aged Bruno Ganz), to surprise his darling girlfriend (Cruz, perhaps slightly miscast as an ingénue type) with a diamond huger than the Ritz. How can he pay for it without some sudden loot? But more interesting is that the Counselor seems to be courting risk, sticking his hand in the fire, curious about all that’s Bad, and relishing participating in it. He gets a smirking grin whenever others warn him off. He’s having fun.
Of course, of course, the Drug Deal Goes Bad. Of course, the cartel comes after. The horror, the horror!
The first part of The Counselor is a set of two-hander scenes in many combinations, showing off the all-star cast, and McCarthy’s writing. There’s much to enjoy with Fassbender and Pitt sharing confidences in a saloon, with Fassbender and Bardem (flamboyant with a tanning salon complexion, spiky hair, and a parrot-head wardrobe) bonding over Bloody Marys and shared criminality. There’s the opening, of Fassbender and Cruz having sex but with something ominous in the air (a reference to the anxious bedding of Janet Leigh and her beau at the beginning of Psycho?). And there’s the very odd scene (how the heck do they know each other?) of Cruz and Diaz discussing Cruz’s new diamond ring at the edge of the swimming pool. Cruz, an innocent princess in a wheeling-and-dealing world, has no idea what it’s worth, has no desire to know. Diaz, in contrast, is obsessed with its price.
Cameron Diaz. She pushes herself here, as a greedy, amoral bitch, steel on the inside, garishly painted on the outside like a Kardashian cousin. The ultimate femme fatale. She’s the one who goes once to a Catholic Church, but her one-time-ever Confession (she’s not even Catholic!) is such a vomitous spilling over of cumulative sins that it freaks out the priest. He tumbles out of the Confessional.
Behind all this is the assured hand of filmmaker Scott, getting grand performances from all these A-List actors. He’s equally in charge of the neo-noir action sequences, including a terrific heist by the cartel of a truck carrying millions in cocaine, the chasing down of Bardem by a host of mobsters, and Hitchcockian trouble for a fleeing Pitt in daylight on a busy London street.
Fassbender’s the Counselor? He reminds me, early in the film, of Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins in the movie of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, if Holly cynically teamed up with Orson Welles’s Harry Lime in profiteering via diluted drugs. Later on in The Counselor, when broken, wandering the sad streets of Juarez, he’s like one of Greene’s guilt-ridden whisky priests. And dear Penélope Cruz? I’m sure it was in the minds of McCarthy and Scott. Recall the startling ending of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican-set Los Olvidados.
PS: And poor El Paso, a city which I visit each year for a film festival. There’s no Whole Foods in this mostly Hispanic city, no Trader Joe’s, no arthouse. And though The Counselor is set in El Paso, a second unit came in and out for a few “B” roll exteriors, and that was it. No local jobs. It’s been many years since a film crew settled in town for a bonafide shoot: Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 The Getaway. That’s why, in homage, characters in The Counselor check out, in a bar, a Steve McQueen poster.
Art Fuse‘s Tim Jackson reviews The Counselor.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.