The Counselor: Yes, It’s Been Bad

Cormac McCarthy is a great writer. Quite a few people share my views on this, and you have only to look at previous works of his like No Country For Old Men and The Road to see how his often bleak, minimalistic style produces some very compelling narratives. With a writer like Cormac McCarthy behind it, Ridley Scott directing it, and a very strong cast performing it, I found it quite reasonable to assume The Counselor would be quite good.

I was mistaken.

There is virtually nothing in the movie’s composition that should suggest problems going down. It has a great writer, a very competent director, and a respectable cast, none of whom are slacking off. These things should, by all logic, come together and make a very good movie. What did come from this combination of factors, however, was two hours of banal, aimless unpleasantness that left me to wander out of the theater the moment the credits rolled wondering what went wrong.

You don’t go to Cormac McCarthy to write something cheerful or uplifting, and that’s certainly not so here; The Counselor revolves around the mounting misfortunes of a nameless lawyer (Michael Fassbender), and how it expands to envelop his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz) and everyone else he knows. We are introduced to the Counselor as he first becomes engaged to Laura, while secretly joining in on a drug-smuggling operation run by his acquaintance Reiner (Javier Bardem) and a veteran middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt). The drug-run goes awry due to Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) double-crossing them, and life soon becomes very grim and often very, very short for everyone involved.

This is, more or less, the movie in its totality. There’s not really much to spoil because there isn’t much there. While this is fairly in keeping with the minimalism of McCarthy’s writing, this time it felt annoyingly underdeveloped rather than merely mysterious. Fassbender does his best acting his character, but the Counselor is basically a nonentity the universe paints a target on; his relationship with Laura is limited pretty much exclusively to us seeing they have a healthy sex life and plan to get married soon, but beyond that there is nothing to him. It’s implied he’s in some financial trouble, which is why he’s involved with the drug cartels for this “one-time deal”, but the trouble is never confirmed or elaborated on. What, if anything, he actually DOES in the smuggling operation is never confirmed or elaborated on. A number of McCarthy’s stories feature extreme misfortune coming to a character whom the audience can’t really say deserves it that much, but the Counselor lacks any details or indeed any reasons to care much at all. He’s a nobody we have no investment in, and he suffers primarily because he’s in the movie in the first place, not because of anything he does during the movie’s run. The decision that screwed him, as one of the characters points out towards the end, was made some time before the movie started, and we’re just there to watch the consequences without much context for what brought them down on him.

Life is usually nasty, brutal, and short in McCarthy’s work, but The Counselor seemed to lack anything compelling behind its bleakness compared to other works of his. In No Country For Old Men, for example, we have some reason to admire Llewelyn Moss before his powerful enemies descend upon him and understand both the mistake and the act of mercy that compounded it are the reason bad things happen to him. Anton Chigurh is a fascinating force-of-nature villain whose rather unique insanity makes him a chillingly memorable personification of the brutal, unfair death that awaits most characters in McCarthy stories, and we can root for and sympathize with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell as he struggles both to fight and comprehend the level of evil that Anton represents. The Counselor has none of this; the primary character is a non-entity we have little reason to admire or dislike before watching his life get destroyed, we don’t know his associates well enough to feel that bad when they are killed as punishment for getting double-crossed, and while Cameron Diaz puts in a good performance making Malkina both absolutely vile and very obviously out of her goddamn mind underneath the cunning and manipulation, she’s ultimately a rather insubstantial antagonist. Anton’s motives are nearly incomprehensible, but he creates a very strong impression as a dispassionate, weirdly philosophical monster that actively pursues his goals. Malkina, by contrast, acts exclusively through others and appears to merely be doing all of this out of simple greed and sadistic amusement. She’s crazy and evil; the open-and-shut nature of the character means the movie has a nonentity protagonist, a very flat antagonist, and a lot of collateral damage we don’t have good reasons to care much about.

Something compelling might have been salvageable if more things happened in the story, but you can fit so much of it inside a single paragraph that there’s not much left to say for it afterwards. Unlike No Country For Old Men or other McCarthy works I’m familiar with, the main character doesn’t really struggle with his fate and have even a brief hope he can somehow do something about the terrible things that are looming in the future; the Counselor is informed he is screwed about a half an hour into the movie, and spends the next ninety minutes being reminded in increasingly graphic ways he is screwed with no way to fight back or do much but beg for mercy he knows he won’t get. Even a futile struggle is more compelling than a character floundering around helplessly as his life is destroyed, and since the latter is what we get in The Counselor, the audience is consigned to two joyless hours of people getting killed in nasty ways for little point and purpose beyond vaguely-hinted at greed.

I do not recommend The Counselor to anyone. Not in theaters, not as a rental, not to own; if you want to enjoy Cormac McCarthy’s considerable talents as a writer, there are a number of novels and adaptations of his work you will find a lot more meaningful than this movie. Give The Counselor a miss and find something at least mildly enjoyable to watch instead.

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