Review by Pamela Zoslov
You can't blame the adaptation for the mess that is THE COUNSELOR, because there is no original novel; McCarthy wrote it as a screenplay, available for sale as a “literary tie-in.” So you can savor, on your Kindle, McCarthy's brutal plotting (beheadings, strangulations, snuff films and worse), tarted up with the author's pretentious dimestore philosophy. You might find that it reads better than it sounds in a movie, because a person reciting McCarthy's portentous lines sounds pretty silly. A sample: a somber character called Jefe counsels the movie's protagonist, a lawyer known only as Counselor: “I have no wish to paint the world in colors more somber than it wears, but as the world gives way to darkness it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing you have created, no more no less. And when you cease to be so will the world.” This is the kind of grandiloquent writing some readers adulate. But it's completely unsuitable as movie dialogue.
Set in the borderland between El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico, the schematic story is about Counselor (Michael Fassbender), a straitlaced attorney who decides to join some of his disreputable associates in a drug deal with a Mexican cartel in order to finance his future life with pretty fiancée Laura (Penélope Cruz).
Counselor's primary associate is Reiner (Javier Bardem), a nightclub owner with spiky hair and loud shirts, a look reminiscent of Al Pacino's Scarface. Reiner (what's with the Jewish name?) is entangled with Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a haughty predator who wears enormous rings and gets off on watching Reiner's jewel-collared pet cheetahs (that's right) hunting jackrabbits. Malkina also has cheetah spots tattooed down her back and bottom. Women are a particularly toxic influence in McCarthy's world; at worst, they're complete monsters (Malkina) or, at best, sexually insatiable and materialistic (Laura, for whom Counselor buys a 3.9-carat diamond engagement ring). The screenplay is studded with speeches about the malevolence of females. I tried to write some of them down, but, to borrow from critic John Simon, my hand refused to comply. The point of view is summed up by Reiner: “The things I've learned about women? Fuck. Half of them I'd like to forget.” He then launches into an anecdote, enacted in the movie, about Malkina having sex with his yellow sports car. (Yes, really.). A woman screwing an expensive car: a perfect symbol of McCarthy's view of women. Reiner says he wishes he could forget the image; you will, too.
You can imagine how well things go for Counselor, who ignores the dire warnings of Reiner and another bromide-spouting dealer, Westray (Brad Pitt) and plunges headlong into dark chaos. Just as we don't know his name, we also get no insight into Counselor's character. So we have no idea what, aside from the love of Laura, would make him take such a profound risk. Counselor's own misogyny is on display as he visits a client, Ruth (Rosie Perez) in prison, where she asks a favor of him. Lest we think Counselor is an altruistic lawyer who takes on pro bono clients, he hurls a gratuitous sexual insult at Ruth. It's an ugly, amoral world, this McCarthyville, where the action begins between the bedsheets (Counselor and Laura in bed) and descends into hell. (It is a peculiarly Catholic point of view, highlighted by a scene in which Malkina decides, on a lark, to go to Confession even though she's not Catholic.)
Another feature familiar from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is the bizarre weapon-of-choice. In NO COUNTRY, the serial killer dispatched his victims with a pneumatic bolt gun. In THE COUNSELOR, it's something called a bolito, a mechanical device with a wire that tightens around the neck and “cuts through the carotid artery.” We see the device used on one character; we also see the aftermath of a beheading, so there's fun all round. The movie gives us McCarthy's gruesome imagination, unrefracted by the Coens' wry irony.
The plot is surprisingly sketchy, giving the impression of something condensed from a fuller novel, even though it isn't. And yet the movie isn't exactly unwatchable, unless you're averse to blood and brutality; it's just considerably less than its makers intended, given the prestigious names involved.. As compensation, there are some juicy, slightly campy performances. Diaz is ghastly and gorgeous in equal measure; Pitt looks like he's having fun with McCarthy's mouthfuls of desperado wisdom; and I enjoyed Bardem, whose affable character straddles the moral borderland between entrepreneur and crook.
The movie is not, unfortunately, campy enough to earn the epithet “so bad it's good.” For that particular honor, few recent films can compete with Lee Daniels' THE PAPERBOY. 2 out of 4 stars.