The Counselor (2013) is a glorious mess, as incomprehensible as it is unshakable. It is Greek tragedy laced with acid, the French New Wave by way of Southern Gothic. Only a great filmmaker could control a movie this out of control and know exactly when to have a firm handle on the reins and when to let it loose. In director Ridley Scott’s case, he lets it loose a whole lot in The Counselor. One of the things I love about movies is that the criticism of “all sizzle, no steak” is sometimes a compliment. It certainly is for The Counselor, which understands that no kind of steak could handle this sizzle.
The movie is an unlikely but strangely affecting marriage of the cynical predestination of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script, and the easy high-gloss storytelling of Scott. The story, about a lawyer who foolishly enters into a drug deal that goes wrong from the word go, then gets worse, is as inevitable as the fall of Oedipus—you see it from a mile away but you look forward to traveling that mile. This is the movie that Savages (2012) wanted to be, a whip-smart deluge into the world of smart and ruthless people in which their smarts don’t enter into their survival as much as their ruthlessness. The road our Oedipus travels is lined with cockroaches, crocodiles and lizards, and presided over by a great leopard, sleek, ever-watching and vicious. One wonders how anyone could survive in this jungle and wonders even more why they would want to.
Oedipus is played by Michael Fassbinder, a lawyer to drug dealers and murderers and referred to only as “Counselor,” although he spends most of the movie being counseled himself, typically being advised to stay out of the business his clients trade in, advice he ignores. He’s not arrogant; he simply doesn’t recognize the things he has to lose, which, before the movie is over, the universe will remind him of by taking them all away. He’s in love with Laura (Penélope Cruz) who he plans to marry and of whom he says “Life is being in bed with you; the rest is just waiting.” Ah, but it’s in the waiting that things go poorly. There’s nothing wrong with his plan to make $20 million on a deal with Mexican cartels, except the knowledge that such deals are unpredictable and that hubris, the type displayed by the well-off Counselor, rarely goes unpunished.
Once the deal is on he goes on an odyssey of unfortunate circumstances, meeting a new monster at every stop. First, the bug-eyed, wild-haired and dried out Reiner (Javier Bardem) with his icy and feline girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Reiner knows what he has with Malkina, which is the problem. “I love smart women,” he says. “But they are an expensive hobby.” He’ll find out just how expensive. Malkina, painted into animal skins of all sorts, owns two live cheetahs (the movie is not subtle, but neither is myth) and stalks the inner workings of the proceedings with the smoothness of Dracula and the insidiousness of Lady Macbeth. Reiner tells a story about a sexual tryst he and Malkina shared in his car that is a mixture of awe, eroticism and fear—its tone is the tone of the movie. Then there’s Westray (Brad Pitt), a middleman in the drug business, whose sleazy charm makes the Counselor feel as if everything will work out even when Westray is trying to dissuade him from getting his hands dirty. Together they make a mess of the Counselor’s deal, and a number of even less savory characters come out of the woodwork looking for revenge, money or both as a noose, practically visible on screen from the first frame, gets tighter and tighter around the Counselor’s neck (and Laura’s and particularly Westray’s).
What elevates The Counselor above the suppurative bog it’s set in is the strength of the performances and the words they’re given to say. There is a heightened expression to them, an intriguing mix of high language spoken by lowlifes, that’s just slightly removed from reality, an aloofness that gives the impression the language is transmuted to these characters through an unseen force. It’s pulp filtered through Shakespeare in which people say the most devastating and portentous things as if it were nothing it all. It is direct and clear, overstated even, but beautiful and tragic. Everything is accusatory, everything is threatening, everything is seductive, often at the same time. The details of the drug deal and certainly the totality of how it goes wrong are sometimes hard to follow, but McCarthy and Scott make sure the audience’s emotions, allegiances and desires are right where they are supposed to be at all times. The screen sweats and pulsates in an intoxicating mix of lurid intrigue and the feeling you need more air. Everyone in the movie is a physical being and the experience of watching it is just as physical.
Bardem is particularly good as an exhausted nihilist, unwilling to give up the life but too tired to keep himself from falling victim to it. Bruno Ganz has a short but memorable scene as a diamond dealer, selling an engagement stone to the Counselor and acting as a sort of Tiresias, similarly ignored. Diaz, however, positively steals the show (and more) with a miraculous performance that borrows from Al Pacino in The Godfather (1972) and Claude Rains in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and yet is ultimately all her own. She is all flashing eyes and nails like claws, a chimera that distracts you with her brute strength while her serpent tail constricts around your neck. She is a microcosm of the movie—ruthless, insidious, sexy, absurd, exhilarating and smarter than she looks. Other people’s underestimation is her greatest advantage, and she uses it to get what she wants. In the movie’s brilliant final scene, she politely but irrevocably reduces a man to nothing at a lunch table, relishing each word with a salubrious carnality. She’s working up an appetite, but when she’s finished, she says, “Let’s order. I’m famished.” Ah, but she’s already eaten.