Cormac McCarthy’s first original film script is every bit as bleak and brutal as you would expect from the author of No Country for Old Men and The Road.
With Ridley Scott at the helm and Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt heading the starriest of A-list casts, The Counsellor may come with lashings of Hollywood gloss, but don’t bargain on any Hollywood sugar-coating of McCarthy’s customary nihilism.
The man unrealistically hopeful of a happy-ever-after ending is Fassbender’s title character, an El Paso lawyer whose desire for an eye-wateringly opulent lifestyle unleashes a cascade of eye-wateringly violent carnage after he gets involved in a scheme to smuggle $21 million of cocaine from Mexico into the US.
Each one of his contacts – from Bardem’s flamboyant nightclub owner Reiner to Pitt’s dapper cowboy Westray – warns him of the irrevocably fateful steps he is taking. Deafened by greed, he won’t listen.
The Counsellor’s appalled awakening to the consequences of his actions subsequently plays out in parallel with the deadly progress of the drug consignment, pointedly hidden in a sewage truck, which encounters fiendish double-crossing and gruesomely inventive bloodshed at every turn.
Scott directs the film’s set pieces with typical panache, his camera as enthralled by scenes of death as of the decadent high living – embodied by Reiner and his girlfriend Malkina (Diaz) – to which the Counsellor aspires.
In between, there’s a great deal of talk. Scads of it. Almost everyone the Counsellor encounters, from hedonistic playboy to humble bartender, is an eloquent storyteller, an astute philosopher and, above all, a conduit for McCarthy’s chillingly pessimistic worldview.
At times, the wordiness gets too much. McCarthy is so in love with the sound of his own voice that when someone caps the remark, “But that was in another country,” by completing the unwitting quote from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (“And, besides, the wench is dead.”), you just know it’s the author talking.
But at its best, the movie dazzles. Shot after shot gleams, seduces and terrifies. Fassbender and Cruz (the lawyer’s girlfriend and the nearest the story has to an innocent character), tussling and sex-talking in bed beneath billowing white sheets. Diaz on horseback while her pet cheetahs, almost as predatory as she is, chase down jackrabbits on the Texas prairie.
Diaz again, languidly sprawling next to Cruz on a poolside lounger, casually revealing the cheetah-spot tattoo that stretches down her back. A fastidious assassination on a desert highway. An equally meticulous but far bloodier killing on a London street.
These scenes, and others like them, are stunning. Yet taken as a whole The Counsellor falls short of No Country for Old Men, showing that when it comes to portraying McCarthy’s comfortless moral universe on screen, neither McCarthy as a screenwriter nor Scott as a director can match the Coen Brothers for chilly detachment and steely control.
Certificate 18. Runtime 117 mins. Director Ridley Scott.
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