The strange saga of Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor is one of this year’s most perplexing. Shielded from the critics by its studio until the eleventh hour, The Counsellor is an authentic film maudit – a cursed film, spluttering on the fumes of its own demise.
Looking at the pedigree of the talent involved, and the oddly subdued damp squib that they eventually turned out, it’s a weirdly gratifying task figuring out exactly how it all went wrong. Let’s start with the script: it’s the first screenplay by the great American novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose pitiless desert landscapes and gallows humour are intensely cinematic. The film came together quickly, with the most bankable A-list names attached, and the unflappable, prolific Scott to direct (although it seems like a more natural project for his late brother Tony, to whom the film is dedicated). And as for the finished project? Well, it’s a confused, violent clusterfuck, profoundly strange in a way that can only be made by very talented, but very distracted people.
The Chinese finger trap of a plot plays out on the Tex-Mex border, juxtaposing the high-flying magnates profiting off the illegal drug trade against the squalor and the aggression of the cartels. Michael Fassbender is the Counsellor, unnamed like a classic existentialist anti-hero, yet in a surely not-so-classic film. For some obscure reason, given his obvious success as a crooked lawyer, he gets involved in a high-stakes drug deal with almost unlimited financial potential, aided by debonair criminals Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). Lurking hawk-like on the sidelines is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s scheming girlfriend. Needless to say, there’s a sting in the tail, and the whole transaction goes to hell, with devastating consequences for everyone. Yet despite Malkina’s interference, the real source of the menace behind the deal’s unravelling hovers mostly ambient and depersonalised, bearing down on its sorry victims with God-against-Job mercilessness.
Although The Counsellor is not an unqualified success by any stretch of the imagination, if you squint ever so slightly, and consider the very accomplished and playful elements that make up the film, it just about looks like a good one. No Country for Old Men, the most successful McCarthy film thus far, was a searing thriller with a dark heart – an exhilarating downer. The Counsellor, in contrast, plays its most disturbing elements for an almost-camp shock value, inflating the film to the level of cruel, crude black comedy (a bit like the Coens at their worst). The characterisations are ridiculous and acted to the absolute hilt, with Javier Bardem looking like a flail-spiked pop-punk front man in a Hawaiian shirt, and Cameron Diaz (oh so terrible) in full Cheetah regalia with two-tone black-blonde hair and leopard spot tattoos. Brad Pitt, decked out in a Southern-gentleman cowboy hat and tails, fares a little better; he’s the only one that seems to fully get the jazziness of McCarthy’s dialogue, and is thus able to inject some genuine menace and charisma, as he has done so brilliantly in his more serious recent roles, such as his parts for director Andrew Dominik.
The trajectory of the story is most obviously a cautionary tale, a modern and drug-flecked variation on the tale of the ‘forbidden fruit’: ‘Don’t err, or be prepared to suffer’. But the film is too in love with its depraved sensibility, and too eager to push the audience’s buttons, to make that nostrum fully convincing. We’ve paid our money to see carnage, and that is what we get, with no sense of real redemption, apart from those willing to recognise that the game has always been rigged. Maybe the unwillingness to provide any respite for the audience’s sympathies makes The Counsellor quite radical for an expensive, mainstream-oriented thriller. Ultimately though, after a strong initial build-up, with plenty of terse exchanges and foreshadowing, everything detonates, moral standards crumble, the Counsellor weeps, and my, it is not pretty.
Watch the trailer: