If You Don’t Like Heavy-Handedness—or Headlessness—Don’t See Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor

Reviews of the latest films.
Oct. 25 2013 3:29 PM

The Counselor

Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz philosophize about death in the friscalating dusk light of Cormac McCarthy’s new film.

Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem in The Counselor.
Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem in The Counselor.

Photo by Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Long before the first heads have popped off in director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy’s leering new thriller The Counselor, a club owner named Reiner (Javier Bardem) sits down with his unnamed lawyer (Michael Fassbender) to offer him some advice. If the lawyer goes ahead with his scheme to enter the Mexican drug trade, Reiner warns, he will soon be entangled in a bloody world of betrayals and, yes, beheadings. Reiner doubts his attorney, unversed in the ways of the criminal underworld, is prepared for the horrors. To illustrate his point, Reiner describes a device called the bolito, a sort of portable, mechanical noose. Once the attacker sneaks up from behind and loops it over the victim’s head, the bolito cannot be deactivated—it will not stop until it cuts into your carotid arteries, spraying anyone in the vicinity.

One of the ironies of The Counselor is that it’s always the so-called counselor who’s receiving advice like this, not the one doling it out. (Lest you miss the point, he’s always addressed as “counselor.” In the credits, he is listed only as “The Counselor.”) If heavy-handedness—or headlessness—isn’t your cup of tea, I’ve got a bit of advice for you: Stay away from this movie, counselor.

As for Fassbender’s character, he’s not one to heed such sensible warnings, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The plot is unusually hazy for a major Hollywood production, but this much we know: The counselor wants to win the hand of his new girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz, charming in an underdeveloped role) with things like 3.5-carat diamonds. In fact, it’s women, whether they’re Madonnas or whores, who draw all the men in this movie toward danger. Soon we meet a middleman called Westray (a fidgety Brad Pitt, who, as usual, excels in a supporting role). He’s more cautious and more experienced than the counselor, but also confesses his weakness for femmes fatales. Reiner has Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a mysterious woman whose insatiable sexual appetites are matched only by her taste for cheetah-related apparel: In addition to her pet cheetahs, which she takes sunbathing and for rides in the car, she has multiple cheetah dresses, and—for when she’s slipped out of her cat suit—cheetah spots tattooed on her back.

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It would seem impossible to overplay a character already so over-the-top, but Diaz all but claws at the camera. She also gets the best scene in the movie, in which Malkina crawls onto the hood of Reiner’s yellow convertible Ferrari and uses the windshield to masturbate. (If the mechanics of this are unclear to you, the movie—which seems obsessed with the mechanics of all things unseemly—explains in detail how this bit of auto-erotica works.) It’s the one moment when the movie fully embraces its own ridiculousness.

The rest of the time, The Counselor takes itself far too seriously. For long stretches, we’re subjected to what feels like an endless parade of movie stars philosophizing about death—its ineluctability, its finality, how “the extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass.” This might be fascinating—the 80-year-old McCarthy has written evocatively about mortality, both in the post-apocalyptic The Road and in imagining the Death-like specter Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. But novelists don’t always make good screenwriters—this is the first film for which McCarthy has written the screenplay himself—and The Counselor’s nihilism soon becomes tedious. This is a movie in which various characters say things like, “Death doesn’t care. Death has no meaning,” or the Yoda-esque, “There is no choosing, only accepting.” A drug kingpin (Rubén Blades) offers a dissertation on the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Eventually, the actors cease to sound like distinct characters. They all just sound like Cormac McCarthy.

This musing on death is far from the only thing The Counselor has in common with No Country for Old Men. Both movies feature outsiders scrambling for drug money along the Texas-Mexico border, and both feature Javier Bardem sporting a funny haircut. (For The Counselor, Bardem modeled his hairstyle after producer Brian Grazer’s.) But while the Coen brothers’ No Country seemed to sympathize with the townsfolk, no matter how naïve, Scott’s camera seems to admire the pure, unclouded hostility of nature’s hunters. In No Country for Old Men, the final word goes to Tommy Lee Jones. His character at least dreams of a nicer world. Here the last word goes to cheetah enthusiast Cameron Diaz. It’s enough to make the extinction of this movie’s reality a welcome concept indeed.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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