The Counselor

26 November 2013 Film

The Counselor

American author Cormac McCarthy’s writing pulses with a savage brand of nihilism. His rich prose maps unforgiving landscapes – from the dank valleys of the Appalachian Mountains to the scorched plains on either side of the Texas–Mexico border – and the godless men who populate these terrains.

The cinematic quality of McCarthy’s novels has often seen them adapted for the screen, including All the Pretty Horses (directed by Billy Bob Thornton in 2000), No Country for Old Men (the Coen Brothers, 2007) and The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009).

“Are we still the good guys?” the boy asks his father in The Road, a post-apocalyptic survival story. This is a question that could be levelled at any of the morally deficient characters of The Counselor, which is McCarthy’s first foray into screenwriting. It’s a universe where ‘good guys’ may not exist at all.

The eponymous protagonist (Michael Fassbender) – a Texan lawyer who has flawless taste in suits and women – is only referred to by his profession. The Counselor’s penchant for the finer things leads him into an underworld of shadowy cartel deals, where avarice trumps loyalty. He’s not an evil man, but his hubris obscures the obvious perils. 

He’s financing a major drug shipment – along with business partners Reiner (Javier Bardem), an ostentatious club owner, and Westray (Brad Pitt), a crooked cowboy – which promises astronomical returns. Naturally, the risks are just as hefty. 

The dialogue is unmistakably McCarthy, but his dark lyricism can be jarring when spoken aloud. Each time characters open their mouths they seem to be philosophising on the human condition. Unreality swells under Ridley Scott’s direction, dreamily elliptical and floridly shot. The violence that punctuates McCarthy’s work becomes cartoonish in Scott’s hands.

Where McCarthy’s novels trade in mythic characters, here he dispenses archetypes. Women are doting virgins or murderous whores: the Counselor’s innocent betrothed Laura (Penélope Cruz) or Reiner’s trashy inamorata Malkina (Cameron Diaz). “The truth about women is that you can do anything to them but bore them,” says Reiner. Malkina may be the epitome of bad taste – oversexed, dripping in gold and flanked by pet cheetahs – but she is not to be underestimated. The question is, who is the hunter and who is the prey?

The Counselor is an unwieldy beast, often laughable in its pomposity yet strangely compelling all the same. Like a cheetah tearing apart a jack rabbit, it’s difficult to look away.

» The Counselor is out now.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross