Pulitzer Prize winning author of Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men and The Road, Cormac McCarthy, had his representatives anxiously awaiting for a new manuscript when he waltzed into their office with his first screenplay The Counselor. Almost immediately, director Ridley Scott snapped it up and attracted one of the best and alluring ensembles in years including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem.
When an El Paso Lawyer (Fassbender) decides to take the plunge by investing in some international smuggling, assisted by two crooked clients - Reiner (Bardem) and Westray (Pitt) - he quickly becomes a victim of coincidence in a business that doesn't believe in it.
McCarthy's dialogue may be the most philosophically elegant and literary that I've ever heard spoken in a mainstream Hollywood film. Like most of his texts, McCarthy's The Counselor is set on the USA/Mexico border. His works require focus, are prone to digression to add different glimpses into the characters but ultimately are fascinated with the value of life and ironically the juncture of both countries sees a drastic contrast in currency as it does in life. However, it also has brief windows of black humour to break up the intensity of the situation. Reiner's (Bardem) recounting the moment that he realised that Malkina (Diaz) may be a human venus fly trap is laugh out loud confronting. McCarthy's The Counselor constantly asks its protagonist whether he's fully aware of what he's about to do? Is he aware that all his tools, all the laws that he's manipulated to attain success mean nothing in the context of the lawlessness he's meddling with. This wasn't a country for old men, and now it's not a country for civilised men.
Scott's become associated with the epic scope of projects such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Prometheus but it's the atmospheric asphyxiation of Alien that defines his style. McCarthy's script give Scott a chance to get back to an intimacy and proximity to the characters. While The Counselor certainly projects the decadence of it's players; Javier Bardem's Reiner and Cameron Diaz's Malkina surveying their own slice of the rolling USA/Mexico borderlands and their own pet cheetahs lolling through the golden grass or Counselor (Fassbender) taking a special trip to Europe trip to visit Bruno Ganz's Diamond Dealer for a suitably grand engagement ring; it's the grime of how quickly life can be snuffed out that resonates. High speed decapitation or smuggling dead bodies for a laugh, this is a world where there aren't second chances or negotiation. Scott collapses the space between you and the characters in the heightened moments of fear and realisation and you get a sense of frenzy and calm.
Hunger and Shame director Steve McQueen has called Fassbender the best actor in the world and he delivers yet another performance that lives up to that assessment. He exudes a confidence that projects that he's riding high on the saddle of the law. However in the moment that this situation turns bad he realises that the civil curtain draped over the world he perceived conceals an affronting casual barbarism. Fassbender turns the Counselor inside out in front of the audience. Brad Pitt's Westray is a long time criminal that's greasing the deal. He's seen it all, he knows that his luck's eventually going to run out but he's managing his vices. The most hypnotic scenes of the film come in the exchanges between Westray and the Counselor. The eloquent and erudite words of McCarthy's script don't necessarily sit well with every actor in the piece. You feel them working hard to take them off of the page and feel authentic. Pitt soars in his delivery. There's an effortless and casual enunciation, wrapped in southern drawl that makes you believe that to get to be a veteran in this business you've got to be whip smart.
Diaz's Malkina is a predator. Not since Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday have I seen her give such a fierce performance. Although initially she seems to be the trophy of Bardem's completely over the top, crazy haired Reiner it's increasingly evident that she's proficient in using sex as a tool to get what she wants. There's a venom to her delivery and she's coiled and reptilian in her gestures that every person around her is on edge. Cruz is a delicate rose unaware that she's in the eye of this unfolding storm. She has faith in a veritable Gomorrah. Every second you feel the warmth of the Counselor's desire and adoration for her, you're filled with the overwhelming dread that she's going to be drawn into the impending fray.
The Counselor delves into the abject amorality of criminality. It's a devastating examination of greed and grief in the overwhelming wilds of apathy; you'll love it if you like that sort of thing.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Cormac McCarthy Starring: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Bruno Ganz
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.