[First things first. The very first question that arises: which version of The Counselor? There are several. Depending on the version one watches, the perception of the movie will vary wildly. For one thing, there are multiple versions of this movie where certain sequences are drastically cut or outright removed as unnecessary or overlong – sequences do not serve to “advance the plot” so to speak. But it is precisely these scenes that make ‘The Counselor’ a transcendental experience. Therefore, this article will specifically discuss the uncut edition of the movie.]
The current Rotten Tomatoes rating for The Counselor stands at 33% positive (hence, rotten). Metacritic, an even more stringent site, rates it at 48%. Even on IMDb, it holds an abysmal score of 5.3/10. Such terrible ratings notwithstanding, I was still very intrigued about it. One, because there were some very persuasive assessments from perceptive critics. Like Manohla Dargis’s review in the New York Times, for instance. However, the main reason for my sustained interest was because the script was written by Cormac McCarthy. A writer whom I admire immensely for his disquieting body of prose. I figured, “how bad can his script really be?”
I was surprised to find that not only did the film exceed my modest expectations at best (from all the negative feedback assumptions), but it is also the best work to come out of Ridley Scott in the last two and a half decades. Even surpassing the bigger critical darling All The Money In The World by quite a margin.
As a Cinephile or even a part-time film critic, one has to be both indulgent and uncompromising.(The Counselor)
On one hand, you have to indulge in the habit of watching a bulk of films since both your life and occupation are closely connected with it. For very similar reasons, you cannot afford to indulge in a movie that has no redeeming quality whatsoever because that would be a precious waste of time and effort. But given The Counselor was penned by McCarthy, I didn’t fully write it off (the terrible reviews notwithstanding). I was determined to go through with it, and I am glad I did. Here is my assessment of The Counselor (Or How I Lost My Already Volatile Respect For American Film Criticism Even More).
Click on the image below to watch The Counselor (2013)!
Critics can always educate themselves on how to tell better stories.
It’s partly why I bid “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night” to academia. Under the harsh glare of self-masturbatory hypocrisy and ‘classroom seclusion, I found I was slowly losing interest in the very thing I’d gotten into it in the first place. Stories. Enigmas. Real, recognizable, perplexing ones.
I know I started off by singing Ridley Scott’s praise (what can I say, I am a sucker for the original Alien and Blade Runner). The Counselor, however, is much more of a screenwriting triumph than a directorial one. It is a Cormac McCarthy tale – through and through. Ridley Scott is the parchment, the papyrus. But a worthy one, who gets what Senor McCarthy is going for. He also lets himself be that parchment. (Besides being a Hollywood hotshot, Scott is also an avid Joseph Conrad fan. He gets pessimism.)
Even before the titles roll, the movie begins with a lengthy sex scene which ranks among one of the best sex scenes I have seen in a movie. It must be so difficult to capture the erotic and the intimate in such an engrossing, frank, and honest manner. It immediately sets the stage that we are in for a personal, up-close, intimate ride into whatever is coming.
Drum roll. (Or in this case, Daniel Pemberton’s deviant score.)
The Counselor is about many things. On the surface, it is a crime thriller about a down-on-his-luck criminal prosecutor – the titular “Counselor” (Michael Fassbender), who gets mixed up in a shady deal with some drug cartel to make big money swiftly. On the whole, though, it’s a narrative about the absence of a clear narrative – only what we make of things. It’s about a malevolent, indifferent world where open-ended chaos is the one definitive feature. At its core, The Counselor is about hubris and the price of that hubris. Its hero thinks that others cannot fathom the limits of his persona – that is his hubris. When occasions call for him to face that fact, he switches into willful amnesia. That is, until he can’t – which we finally get to witness too in the searing “DVD scene” towards the end of the movie.
We never find out the Counselor’s real name. He is only ever called by that one form of address by the other characters: ‘Counselor. His lover, Laura (Penelopé Cruz) never actually takes his name onscreen. It is what ultimately appears in the end credits too: the Counselor.
His relation to Laura, how it blossoms and is abruptly cut short – is at the heart of the film’s tragedy. It is an absurd tragedy, because her remarks throughout the movie – on her Christian faith, on materialism – suggest that she would be happy with a more modest living. Or is it just her self-delusion? We’ll never know.
There’s a dialogue in The Counselor that is quite cherished:
This is a cautionary stone. Although I suppose every diamond is cautionary… It’s not a small thing to wish for, however unattainable, to aspire to the stone’s endless destiny. Isn’t that the meaning of adornment? To enhance the beauty of the beloved is to acknowledge both her frailty and the nobility of that frailty. We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.The Counselor (2013)
The speech invokes the image of the mythical “philosopher’s stone” that comes up again later in the film. The philosopher’s stone is that elusive, dangerous, imaginary prize that comes in the form of devastating knowledge. For the Counselor, knowledge is irony. It is ironically through the Counselor’s project to give his beloved the grace and dignity he thinks she deserves, that he ultimately rains down destruction upon her. Yet, it is also why Laura loved him in the first place. Because she saw that, he saw her as this graceful person. That is what made her blind to his other, subtle, sinister failings – even when she actually wasn’t blind to them. In the heated polo scene, for instance, when an uncouth ex-client comes over to aggressively tease the Counselor, Laura demonstrates that she actually recognizes some truth in his mockery.
Few days back, a close friend of mine used an extraordinary phrase in a conversation. “Closeted evil.”
Now, she used it for an elderly character in HBO’s Euphoria, but the tag applies in a way to the Counselor too. I am not sure how common or ubiquitous this phrase is: “closeted evil.” I didn’t do a Google search out of fear. Don’t know if she’s the first person to have ever used it. or just the 5000th person to do so. But coming from her, it rang new, like something I hadn’t heard or thought of before. Closeted evil. On close inspection, Fassbender’s character of the Counselor is something like that. The nature of his ‘villainy’ is that you don’t always see him coming. He is a trigger-puller, but he doesn’t pull the trigger in a way you’d expect him to.
The moral ambiguity that makes him such a success in personal life, undoes him in his chosen ‘criminal’ life. And eventually, in his personal life too. Falling in love with him – in whatever form – is the most fatal thing the character(s) in The Counselor suffer from.
Stark evidence of the moral ambiguity.
His friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) points that out early on himself. What he calls the “paradox” about his personality and character. But there’s one step further in that track which even he is afraid to wholly admit. The fatalism that attracts him to his friend. He acknowledges it about his lover, but he is afraid to go to that length about the Counselor because that would be too far. He does get a disturbing hint of that when he talks about his prize car. But the elaborate conversation quickly switches from a wonder-struck hilarity to a deeply unsettling one – as it slowly dawns upon Reiner that maybe it’s the Counselor who brings out all these subconscious death-dreams in him. So he quickly kills that topic.
But that diversion doesn’t alter the course of his real life. While it is true that his duplicitous lover Malkina (Cameron Diaz) does back stab him – quite expectedly – it is the ‘unexpected’ action of the Counselor that shoots off the whole, dismal chain of events. In the vortex that ensues, he even manages to take down Westray (Brad Pitt), a sleek, slick man who had managed to live invulnerably for so long. Even he didn’t see the Counselor coming – not fully, and not nearly in time. Brad Pitt in this movie is a… well, he’s a thing. Sort of like a coked-up, softer version of himself from Killing Them Softly (2012).
McCarthy has a penchant for regularly flirting with nihilism.
Sometimes he gives in to it (Blood Meridian), sometimes he doesn’t (All The Pretty Horses). Sometimes he doesn’t, but only after a real struggle over giving in (The Road). While sunnier on the aesthetic side, The Counselor is considerably more nihilistic than The Road. Maybe – partly – because The Road is still a futuristic dystopia – which leaves at least some sliver of hope. It is difficult to hope when you’re living the reality of your situation. After all, truth is stranger than fiction. Strange is the backdrop of The Counselor: with the drug war and the femicide epidemic in borderland Mexico.
McCarthy has always been uncomfortably close to that chaos – historically and thematically. He has visited these badlands, time and again, in uniquely original compositions: through Blood Meridian past No Country For Old Men. Like ‘Lynchian’ or ‘Kafkaesque,’ ‘McCarthyan’ should already be a distinct adjective by now – except maybe the infamous Cold War Senator already has some spiritual copyright on that.
When it comes to the moral degradation and human cost of the cross-border Mexican drug war, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) has hogged much of the mainstream attention. But it is The Counselor that truly drives the stake into the heart of the matter – on a much broader personal and philosophical story scape. Might even be the case that Sicario took inspirational tidbits from the latter and managed to center American machismo to greater commercial and critical appeal. Something for which The Counselor (and McCarthy) has no time or intention to spare. Hence, my nagging suspicion of a semi-malicious 33% Tomatometer rating. For his part, Ridley Scott has dallied a little in the dusty vistas of crime, romance, and freedom in Thelma & Louise. But while Thelma and Louise ended on a tragic note too, The Counselor has none of the light-hearted sportsmanship of that movie. This is cold darkness in shimmering sunlight.
Let’s get back to the story.
I’ll end with a scene that comes fairly early on in the movie, featuring the late maestro Bruno Ganz in an extended cameo. A role from the final stage of his career before he passed away in 2019. It is probably my favorite scene from the entire movie. In the scene, the Counselor has come to Amsterdam to buy a diamond for his lover. The diamond merchant (Ganz) – a Sephardic Jew – vacillates between business, geology, and philosophy. At one point, on Counselor’s insistent prodding, he launches into this nostalgic monologue:
The heart of any culture is to be found in the nature of the hero. Who is that man who is revered? In the classical world, it is the warrior. But in the western world, it is the man of God. From Moses to Christ – the prophet, the penitent. Such a figure was unknown to the Greeks, unheard of, unimaginable. Because there is only a man of God, not a man of gods. And this God is the God of the Jewish people. There is no other God. We see him … purloined. Purloined in the West. How do you steal a God? The Jew beholds his tormentor dressed in the vestments of his own ancient culture. The fit is always poor, and the hands are always dripping blood. The coat – didn’t that belong to Uncle Haim? What about the shoes? Enough, I see your look. No more philosophy.diamond dealer, The Counselor (2013)
The expression on the Counselor’s face after hearing this speech? That would be the summation of my own feelings for this whole movie.
It is part of the literary beauty of The Counselor.
Even when the storyline doesn’t wholly become clear, even past all its jerky tonal shifts, it goes into these lengthy asides. Asides which serve no quantifiable function in the plot, except providing a kind of evanescent philosophy of life. The movie is our Counselor’s odyssey through this modern age of no god, no anything. He is a new kind of hero for a new kind of world.
In the figure of the Counselor is the heart of his world’s culture – in all its myriad tyrannies and perverse circumstances. As the ‘Jefe’ (Rubén Blades) points out to him over a crucial telephone conversation: “Do you love your wife so much, so completely, that you would exchange places with her upon the wheel? And I don’t mean dying, because dying is easy.” If there is any consolation or mysterious hope to be found in this movie, it is in the grace of grief. It’s the only thing in this tale that is beyond transactional in nature. In Jefe’s aphorism: “…that is because when it comes to grief, the normal rules of exchange do not apply. Because grief transcends value. A man would give entire nations to lift grief off his heart and yet, you cannot buy anything with grief. Because grief is worthless.“
Taking up an age-old question: who counsels the counselor?
Turns out, everyone does. In their own ways. Even as they fail to “counsel” themselves, so does the Counselor. Like the prized diamond, this movie is in the nature of a ‘flaw’, as are its characters. It is the imperfection that lends the diamond its value, gives it color and shape. Likewise, it is with The Counselor. There are scenes – and dialogues – and moments in this film that transcend mere plot value. They add a richer tint to its constantly shifting complexion. The composition is not always picture-perfect, but somehow all the more captivating for it.