In Honor Of Cormac McCarthy, Let’s Reconsider ‘The Counselor’
4:40 PM EDT on June 15, 2023
For as indelible as the work of Cormac McCarthy became to American literature, you'd have thought this guy would have had more of his work turned into feature films. Part of the reason this mostly didn't happen was because of how particular he was about what he wrote and when; the other part was that adapting his stories turned out to be hard, despite their very cinematic subject manner.
In 2012, 47 years after the publication of his first novel, McCarthy sold his first movie script. Called The Counselor, that script was eventually filmed by Ridley Scott and released in the fall of 2013 to very divisive responses to say the least. The people who hated it REALLY hated it and the people who enjoyed it found themselves having to defend it. And that was just between the critics and the few people who actually saw it in theaters; while it did eventually make back its budget overseas, it was a big flop, playing to a bunch of movie nerds and crime-fiction fanatics sitting in mostly empty theaters.
I was one of those movie nerds/crime-fiction fanatics sitting in a mostly empty theater. To this day, I cannot tell you what was going on in my own life that sent me, by myself, to an opening-weekend showing of The Counselor, but I can tell you that the combination of Ridley Scott, Cormac McCarthy, and Javier Bardem in Bart Simpson hair hit various sweet spots hard enough to make me anticipate the film's release.
I will not lie and say I came out of the theater a different man, but I did come out a confused one. The movie was grim, sure, nihilistic even—one of the louder and more common complaints about it—but mostly I just felt like it wasn't about anything. It was a fog of a movie, unable to be grasped, but also straightforward enough that there was nothing to decipher either. It was funny, but I don't think it was supposed to be. It had, putting it mildly, quite retrograde outlooks on women and on how men view them. At the time, all of these felt like flaws. But over the years, as the movie has stayed with me more than I'd have expected, I came to see these flaws as at least part of the point.
The Counselor follows an unnamed drug lawyer (Michael Fassbender) known only as "Counselor," who, despite swimming in shark-infested waters with various cartel and mob associates, has always maintained a safe distance until this very moment. He's fallen in love with a woman named Laura (Penelope Cruz) and he wants to spend a lot of money on her, buying her an engagement ring and treating her to the glamorous life (the flossy, flossy if you will) somewhat beyond his actual means. He decides to gamble, to put his money in with his cartel client/pal Reiner (Bardem) for a one-time drug deal promising one big payout. As you might imagine, multiple people advise him against this: You've stayed out for this long, goes their reasoning, so why corrupt yourself now? They paint a vivid picture of the forces to which he's proposing to expose himself.
We'll get into this more later, but much of The Counselor is characters in fancy rooms talking about the mechanical realities of corporate drug-dealing and the various murders that come with it, as though it's just the price of business. They present this as a warning to the titular lawyer, to be careful about what will happen, because if even one thing were to go wrong in this deal, he'd be fucked.
Anyway, the counselor goes through with the deal, and one thing goes wrong. Shocking! I know. A mole in the operation, which turns out to be Reiner's hot new girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), sets an operation in motion to steal the drugs, leading to the gruesome murder of a cartel operative whom the counselor just so happened to have bailed out of jail earlier in the movie. To the cartel, the counselor sure seems to have set all this up, and unfortunately they don't ask for explanations or clarifications. Lots of hi-jinx ensured from there!
Now, is The Counselor a good movie? Not exactly. Even people who love it know it's overwrought and filled with scenes that serve no real purpose. But it is just as fantastic as it is terrible. McCarthy takes the pulpy crime thriller and turns it into his own excessively literary canvas, weaving between the spiritual and banal reality with absolute majesty. Some saw this as an issue, criticizing the script as overwritten, but to me, that trait allows it to achieve a very specific frequency it shares with few other movies. The way to adapt the work of a writer as evocative, illuminating, and wordy as McCarthy for a visual medium is with either maximum restraint (showing the friscalating dusklight over telling it) or with none at all. The Counselor opts for the latter, leaning in completely, just full unrestrained, maximalist McCarthy. For a script featuring a character called "the Wireman" who kills people with wire, this is the right call. Scott works his magic in the hallucinatory cinematography, the production design, and the action set-pieces, including one very memorable one that involves Cameron Diaz humping a Ferrari.
Of this nearly two-hour movie, 70-plus minutes of it concerns people in expensive-looking places talking about masculine vice and the corporate structure of Mexican drug cartels. In the latter case, they clarify the remove of intent and human emotion in the drug business: At one point, another middle man, Westray (Brad Pitt), tells the counselor, "The beheadings, the mutilations, that's just business. Gotta keep up appearances. It's not like there's some smoldering rage at the bottom of it." In the case of the former, drugs, power, and yes, the ladies, are presented as the desires that bring down even the most careful men. Rainer and Malkina's devious relationship ultimately parallels the counselor's relationship with Laura, because both love and lust will eventually blind these men into making the wrong decisions regardless of reasoning. Reasons don't matter in McCarthy's world.
It's a film about the cold corporatization and globalization of the country, a story about men who disassociate from their reality and the better they are at doing so, the more they're rewarded financially. McCarthy doesn't seem to have any opinions or attitudes about his characters but he seems to punish those who pick and choose when and what they value. The counselor is punished the most by this world, for believing he can play in the criminal world on his own terms and exit at his leisure, and guys like Reiner or Westray are compromised by their vices.
The only person who gets to thrive is the Jefe, the cartel boss (Ruben Blades), primarily because he's the boss of this drug corporation but also because he values total disassociation. In an almost six-minute speech at the end of the movie, he talks to the counselor, who is now desperate to save the life of his kidnapped girlfriend Laura, and grimly tells him that there is nothing to save, the forces are out of everyone's control. Her death is business as usual. Jefe tells the counselor to hold onto his grief as a reminder of the choices he made; it's the most valuable thing in the world even though it's ultimately worthless.
These ideas of the world as a corporation, and things like murder and drugs as indifferent cogs on the industry gears, is extremely dark, but is proving truer and truer in an increasingly fascist present. It's not that The Counselor predicted anything; it just had a more clear-eyed vision of where we already were.
But even in all this bleakness, this movie is also pretty funny in a blackly comic way. There's the aforementioned car humping, but there's also the hammed-up performances of Bardem, Diaz, and Pitt, who seem to relish taking part in such heavy-handed melodrama. The Counselor also features one of the most insane death scenes you will see in any movie, involving Brad Pitt and an electronic zip-tie wrapped around his neck in the middle of a busy street. If nothing else, The Counselor might be the last movie to have true cocaine energy.
I'm not gonna sit here and tell you that The Counselor tells you all you need to know about McCarthy's ethos. More than anything, it's a curiosity in a career full of classic stories. It's amazing that he tried it out. And even though it flopped in its moment, it makes more sense now than it did in 2013. It's what the kids would call a "vibe movie."
When McCarthy died earlier this week, The Counselor was the first thing I thought about, before all of his books, even before the hit filmed adaptation of No Country For Old Men. I've been thinking about this movie at least once a month since I first saw it. It dug into my skin and won't let go, just like all his best work does. The Counselor endures not because it's some masterwork, but because it's an absolute fucking mess. It might be one of the best movies of the century so far. Throw it back on in his memory and give it the reconsideration it deserves.