Early on in the grim, Cormac McCarthy-penned movie The Counselor, a spiky-haired nightclub owner (Javier Bardem) explains to his lawyer (Michael Fassbender) that the people involved in the U.S.-Mexican drug trade are not to be taken lightly. One of their methods of assassination, he says, involves a motorized wire that’s dropped around an unsuspecting target’s neck—tightening until it severs the carotid arteries and sprays blood everywhere, killing its victim instantly.
And once this sick little device has been placed around your neck, there’s nothing you can do to stop it—just like this film.
Inevitability is a theme that is foreshadowed, warned about, and then played out in grisly fashion throughout The Counselor, which is crammed with so much nihilistic philosophizing that it makes the fatalistic tirades of Killing Them Softly (another bleak neo-noir co-starring Brad Pitt) seem like Fried Green Tomatoes.
Fassbender’s title character deals with criminals in El Paso every day. He seems decent enough, but perhaps mingling with powerful clients has given him a sense of false bravado. Eager to do something extraordinary to please the woman of his dreams (an innocent Penelope Cruz), he invests in a shipment of drugs traveling from Colombia to Chicago. It’s risky, as he is constantly reminded by various depraved characters in extended monologues, but he made up his mind a long time ago.
The Counselor contains much of the same existential terror of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, but little of its cinematic panache. Like that downbeat 2007 Best Picture winner, Bardem again takes on the flashiest role here, but rather than a film made up of superbly crafted moments of suspense like No Country, The Counselor instead settles in on an overall feeling of mounting dread. Cameron Diaz plays Bardem’s lover, a devious woman whom Bardem is equal parts attracted to and scared of.
Ridley Scott is a director with a slick visual style, but in The Counselor he’s mostly relegated to disquieting, two-person conversations, so his flourishes are few and far between. What he does effectively is create a suffocating atmosphere that mirrors the journey of Fassbender’s counselor. McCarthy’s screenplay is overly careful not to explain everything, relying on the viewer to draw its own plot connections with varying degrees of dramatic tension.
It’s not that the entire film is dramatically inert, but catching every subtle reference and how it fundamentally impacts the story is challenging when so many of the “big” moments are not shown. In this way, The Counselor reminded me of the nearly incomprehensible plotting of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The Counselor is frustrating viewing by any standard, especially someone expecting a riveting crime thriller. However, there is plenty to chew on. I found myself reflecting on my own life-changing decisions as its characters pontificated on about the consequences of one’s choices (“You are the world you have created,” says another philosophical drug kingpin played by Rubén Blades), only to be snapped back into the film by the inevitable brutality of McCarthy’s world. It’s a place where any kind of weakness is seized upon, and one where fear can overtake even the most confident of criminals.