By Tim Pelan
Not much of a one for describing his work, author Cormac McCarthy bluntly describes The Counselor, his first original screenplay, knocked out in five weeks apparently and directed by Ridley Scott in seven, as the story of Michael Fassbender’s eponymous lawyer, “a decent man who gets up one morning and decides to do something wrong.” That wrong thing is using criminal connections through his stock in trade to invest in a one-time only drug deal to pay off some debts and buy a huge diamond engagement ring for his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). But McCarthy and Scott are not interested in pandering to a normal audience remove—they want to plunge us face first into the filthy mire of a morally absent world order in which we all are complicit, even on an unknowing level. If audiences and critics felt uncomfortable with The Counselor or mocked its “pseudo-pretentious monologuing” and arch stylistic tics, that’s because it doesn’t take a side. Characters are vessels for an inconvenient truth in this grimmest of fairy tales. Guillermo del Toro tweeted that it is “a meditation of the illusory nature of normalcy and the devastation to come.” Cameron Diaz’s often mocked schemer Malkina, the nominal trophy girlfriend of louch, teased-haired dilettante drug dealer Javier Bardem (Reiner), “is calculated to discombobulate… with her razor-sharp fingernails, cheetah tattoo and lifeless, heavily made up eyes (she) is like no femme fatale I’ve seen before.” (Anne Billson). Fassbender’s slick-suited Counselor is us, one step across the line—thinking he can dip his beak and come away clean. Our world, which he comes to realise in the bleakest of denouements, has no convenient detachment from, to quote Jasun Horsley for The Quietus, “the blind exploitation of others for the sake of personal self-gratification, a world in which the human soul has been harnessed to maquiladoras (major US production plants across the border in Chihuahua, exploiting the populace and shrugging their shoulders at the often wholescale kidnapping of vulnerable female employees) and become fuel for the most depraved kind of dreaming. The price of unchecked greed is never-ending grief.” That exploitation feeds all the way from the factories to the drug mules, snuff movies and organ theft. In a global free market economy, there’s always a buyer like the Counselor willing to turn a blind eye.
Michael Fassbender in the extras on the Blu-ray states that he feels his character (let’s call him “C” for brevity’s sake) is “a bit of a passenger.” Unlike Nicholson’s purgatorial journalist in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, C and everyone else around him engage constantly in verbiage to drive the plot. McCarthy’s words aren’t always as high blown, fancy and elaborate as dismissive reviews would have it though. In context, they often flow and elucidate clearly the themes and motivations of story and character. The dialogue is no more impenetrable than that of David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin. I have no idea why critic Mark Kermode could call this one of the worst films for him of 2013, yet rave about the earlier adaptation of Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man, an equally stylised retelling of a Northern Ireland Troubles murder gang. Strong on gore and violence, less illuminating on the wider truths, it is a poor adaptation by the author of his own brilliant inner dialogue source material, unlike The Counselor. Bar a brilliant shoot-out between cartel hitmen disguised as lawmen, the high-tension wire snapping off of a motorcycle courier’s head speeding down a dusty back road, and the “Chekhov’s gun” reveal of the gruesome “Bolito” when Brad Pitt’s Westray fails to quite feel the heat coming around the corner, dread and the pressing weight of the consequences of sin permeate Scott’s film. It’s a Faustian pact in a crime setting, what is wrong with that? Roughly speaking, the first half consists of a cocky C making his plans with Reiner and Westray, who each warn him about what he’s getting into—he sees all the depravity of the drug gangs’ world as an abstraction from his goal, happiness with the pure Laura on his terms, not an endemic part of it. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is. (“They know that you’re stupid,” Westray observes, referring to the faceless cartels. “They just don’t know how stupid.”). In the second half, believed to be responsible for the death of the aforementioned courier nicknamed “The Green Hornet” and the hijacking of a shipment, he spirals into a circle of hell, facing the consequences, Laura kidnapped into God knows what fate.
Jasun Horsley again:
“As a vision of evil The Counselor is completely persuasive. Its depiction of soullessness as eerily sumptuous, even sickly erotic, of moral incoherence as the driving force behind civilization, makes it almost Lovecraftian. With its relentless, seductive insistence on horror as the soul of the plot, it may be the first truly postmodern horror film. By going all the way into the nihilistic perspective of a godless universe, it achieves what Coppola failed so spectacularly to do with Apocalypse Now, and takes us all the way into the American heart of darkness.
And—surprise, surprise—it’s in Mexico.”
These people swan about in luxurious bars and restaurants and pool parties, a facade to hold the evil that men do at bay. Scott’s “world building skills providing the perfect visual complement to McCarthy’s loquacious screenplay. All sunlight, no shadow, nowhere to hide”—Ann Billson. DoP Dariusz Wolski shoots in a digital high-contrast, sun-baked patina. Production designer Arthur Max states that “it’s a religion of consumers… so these characters are high priests and priestesses of that culture. They’ll do anything in effect to sustain it and that’s the morality tale of this movie, which is if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, the consequences are there for you to suffer.”
Westray tells C all about the cartels operating in Ciudad Juárez, known in Mexico since the early 1990s as “the capital of murdered women.” C is rudely and horribly brought face to face with this real world horror when he later travels down there in a futile attempt to bargain for the life of Laura, taken as collateral for his perceived treachery. What he doesn’t comprehend is he no longer has anything they want or need. Jefe (Rubén Blades), the Cartel boss he attempts to bargain with, patiently explains that he has to acknowledge that “You are the world you have created. And when you cease to exist, this world that you have created, will also cease to exist.” The Counselor weighed the risks, without weighing the consequences. Jefe, as Horsley puts it, “is beyond social norms of ‘good and evil,’ he is merely an instrument of divine justice, and he gently, almost tenderly, presides over the Counselor’s awakening, which is his final and complete moral destruction.”
Sickened and humbled, The Counselor is delivered a brown envelope with a jaunty “Hola!” greeting on it by a child, and sobbing, realises what it contains without opening—a snuff movie DVD of Laura’s execution. He drinks to oblivion, then stumbles out on to the night time streets, but not before a warning from the barman. People get shot in the dark, their executioners then turning on the light to see who is dead “for a joke,” because death has no meaning. The barman has no family or friends, they are all dead. “I’m the one who has no meaning.” C exits and stumbles across a protest of brave women, demanding answers for their missing whilst mirror shaded Police look on impassively. His life also now has no meaning, living on borrowed time himself, with the weight of what he has done.
But if you think experiencing the missing just leads to martyrdom, allow me to harken back to Malkina, one of the most fascinatingly shallow yet devious characters in the film. This stone cold predator (she has cheetah tattoos down her back to match her two beloved hunters) elucidates to both Reiner over cocktails at sunset whilst her pets chase down jackrabbits, and later to a discomforted priest for kicks, the brief story of her childhood. Her parents were taken by the (presumably American backed) military junta and tossed from a helicopter when she was very young. It is implied she was raised by soldiers, and thus has a bleak worldview.
“I don’t think I miss things. I think to miss something is to hope that it will come back. But it’s not coming back. I’ve always known that since I was a girl.”
“You don’t think that’s a bit cold?” Reiner asks. “I think truth has no temperature.” (In context, that much mocked line has a purity to it.)
She is utterly ruthless, but has Reiner bewitched and bedazzled, fucking his car’s windscreen, in a tall tale told by the playboy pusher to C over drinks. I’m with Jasun Horsley on this—she fucks the car to show Reiner “exactly how and why he will never have her, that he could never hope to satisfy such inhuman desire (except perhaps by dying), or even understand it. He’s just an aperitif.” She’s a predator, who eavesdrops on his conversations and usurps his plans behind his back, caring nothing for his well-being if it stands in the way of what she wants. Malkina has clawed her way up from the bottom—there is no halo around this survivor of the Missing’s head. Paula Thomas, who dressed her for the film, stated in The Hollywood Reporter that Malkina uses clothes “as a mask for the darkness that lurks inside. She’s manipulative and calculating, so she uses her showstopping wardrobe as her facade to distract from what she’s really doing. The clothes are a power play.”
“Malkina is close to maquina, Spanish for machine… On the other hand, the words ‘malki zedek’ have also been interpreted as mouthful of offering. The last words of the film, spoken by Malkina after she warns her banker that ‘the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining,’ are: ‘I’m famished.’… When she states her intention to turn the spoils of the slaughter into diamonds at the film’s end, she’s talking about tallying up her work in terms of souls devoured, to fill her own emptiness.” For this scene Diaz requested a hood be added to her studded shoulder dress “to add mystery and a sense of disguise.” She’s like a sorceress passing through the world of men. Her sole regret, after they go astray following the murder of Reiner, is the loss of her cheetahs. “To see a quarry killed with elegance, it’s moving to me.”
Her quarry now is Westray, undone after she tracks him to London by that most banal of methods, a honey trap. Natalie Dormer in a dress that leaves little to the imagination and blonde hair teased to tease, sleeps with this man who earlier told C he could leave it all behind in a moment and live in a monastery, if it wasn’t for women. She obtains the required passwords to some accounts, but Malkina still needs Westray’s laptop. There then follows a hunt and kill on the city streets equal to any hit in The Godfather. A jogger passes by a jumpy Westray, but it’s a bluff, for now. He exits and turns a corner, espying another runner (shades of her twin big cats), but the original is now approaching again from behind, and slips the bolito around his throat, while the other runner grabs the case. A small electric motor steadily tightens a steel wire around his throat until the carotid artery is severed. It can’t be removed or stopped—he knows this yet desperately, instinctively tries to impede the bolito by slipping his fingers under it. He collapses on the pavement with blood spurting from his throat, a gurgling “Fuck you!” laugh to the gods thrown up as we zoom in on his outflung hand, the fingers sliced off.
From steely blue and granite cityscapes (London also doubled for American interiors, Amsterdam and the occasional sidewalk transition in presumably Dallas and Chicago) to glitzy villas and restaurants, Mexican border posts (a Spanish army base), the South-west plains and the Counselor’s descent into hell in a sweaty Juárez (all Spain), Scott and McCarthy have together mind-melded on a dissection of crime tropes, peeling back the facade to reveal the ugly tumor within. Perhaps the tax break stretching of the $25 million budget on locations used enabled this subversive film to get made with little risk to the studio backers. Another Horsley observation on its uncomfortable truths:
“One of the things The Counselor shows, implicitly, simply by daring to deal with this subject matter, is that the Mexican drug cartels—the barbarian hordes depicted in the film—aren’t a threat to the stability of the US but part of the machinery of capitalism that sustains it. For example, in To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War, John Gibler writes:
‘In 2008, drug money saved the major global banks from collapse and thus, stretching just a bit, saved capitalism from a devastating internal crisis when the speculative capital markets imploded. Drug money—truckloads of cash, actual physical money—would appear to be one of capitalism’s global savings accounts.’”
Westray seems to hold all the answers, but he’s just as blind to the consequences until it’s too late. “If you think, Counselor, you can live in this world and be no part of it, all I can say is, you’re wrong. It’s not that you’re going down, Counselor, it’s what you’re taking with you.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for The Counselor [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Interview with screenwriter Cormac McCarthy on The Counselor: on the title character; on getting Ridley Scott on board; on the cast; on the film being about the characters; on what audiences should expect.
Cormac McCarthy sent me the script and I was blown away by the material. I loved the complexity of it, all the details that showed how this particular situation evolved. The dialogue was fantastic—the best dialogue I’ve ever had. The film was so nihilistic. But so what? Occasionally, nihilism is an interesting subject. Apocalype Now, Aguirre: The Wrath of God and The Godfather are all nihilistic. But because The Counselor was so focused on the characters and the price [Fassbender’s character] would pay, it became quite a lot to stomach, I think. It upset a lot of people. But [the movie] is filled with great performances. The cast was fantastic. How great was Rubén Blades as the head of the cartel, right? The reason [author Don Winslow] chose me to direct the movie adaptation of his book The Cartel is because of The Counselor. So I’m very happy with it. —Ridley Scott
I think he writes the truth. Because life is like that most of the time in some shape or form, whether it’s illness or the end of the world. Cormac’s a writer’s writer. You read his writing and think, I can do that, and then you sit down and try. And you try, dude. Reading this script—it was so fast and precise and crystal clear. I sat for a moment and then picked up the phone and called up the relevant person and said, ‘Get me a meeting with Cormac A.S.A.P.’ That was Friday. I met him on a Monday, I think, in Albuquerque. We sat for about four hours in a hotel and we just chatted. And at the end of it, Cormac says, ‘Shall we?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we should.’ —Ridley Scott
I really loved The Counselor, which should have been f—ing HUGE! With that cast, we should have had a $50-million weekend. After the marketing and advertising on that, I was ready to kill somebody. You don’t preview films like that. You keep them in a box… you’ve got Brad (Pitt), you’ve got Cameron Diaz, you’ve got Javier Bardem, you’ve got Penelope Cruz, you’ve got Michael Fassbender… are you f—ing kidding me? You don’t show it, you advertise and you put it out and you’ll have a $50-million opening weekend. —Ridley Scott
RIDLEY SCOTT ON FILMMAKING
How does Ridley Scott make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?
2018 BAFTA Fellowship recipient Ridley Scott talks making his way from directing commercials to sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. Photographed by Kerry Brown, Nick Wall © Fox 2000 Pictures, Scott Free Productions, Nick Wechsler Productions, Chockstone Pictures, TSG Entertainment, Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions, Event Film Cars. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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