Acidic, cynical, perhaps having a twisted laugh on those who think they’re in control of their own fate, Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” is an incredibly moribund and bleak poem about greed, chance, and the dark side of man. It’s like a merciless and blistering riff on the adage, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” And coming from the mind of celebrated author Cormac McCarthy (“The Road,” “Blood Meridian”), known for grim and unforgiving stories of fate, morality and the dark shadows of human nature, what did you expect? It’s classic McCarthy chiseled down to the bloody bone (and note this isn’t his first script: McCarthy wrote a screenplay for 1977’s “The Gardener’s Son”—watch it in full here).
Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz, “The Counselor” is also one of the darkest and weirdest movies a studio has released this year. “A cologne ad for the scent of despair,” L.A. Times writer Mark Olson wrote on Twitter much to our amusement. As you might expect, McCarthy’s screenplay is replete with his characteristic machismo tough guys, symbolically weighty women, and philosophical asides, in which a character searching for the perfect diamond for his fiancée turns into an epic conversation about cosmic perfection. Days later we can’t stop thinking about it or talking about it—even if most of agree that it’s not an entirely successful film (read our review here). It’s a movie that on some levels is opaque in its narrative—McCarthy & Scott are simply not interested in plot mechanics or the who, what and where of the past—and, on other levels, is incredibly nakedly simple, acting as a cruel riff on chance via the Faustian pact. No deal with the devil ends well.
It’s a testament to the singular, witchy power of “The Counselor” that such thematic depth can even be extracted from a movie that often times flirts with outright boring the audience, largely thanks to dialogue that become circular and dense. In another universe, this film could easily be put on as a play, since almost every scene consists of two people talking, usually with one or both of them comfortably sitting down. Maybe this only adds to its strangeness, considering that we know McCarthy, through his tersely cinematic novels like “The Road” and “Blood Meridian,” is capable of wide-open vistas and pulse-quickening suspense set pieces.
So maybe you’ve seen the movie and want to revisit its epic oddness, or more likely, given the movie’s weak opening, mixed reviews and disastrous CinemaScore, you’ve stayed away, and want to instead be an armchair commentator on all things “The Counselor.” Either way, we present, with all the subtlety of Javier Bardem’s electro-shock hair, the five most WTF moments from “The Counselor.” It goes without saying that spoilers follow. Quite frankly, this list could easily stretch to 10, and probably 20 with repeated viewings. It’s that insane.
1. The Catfish Scene Is Spectacular, The Rest Of The Sex Scenes Not So Much
Before the movie had even hit theaters, the Cameron-Diaz-having-sex-with-a-car scene was already building a fair share of buzz in the blogosphere. And while the scene is every bit as outrageous as it sounds, it’s also one of the rare moments where Cormac McCarthy’s concoction of eroticism, bleak fatalism and pitch black humor comes together perfectly, resulting in one of the best scenes of the film. As told by Reiner (with Javier Bardem managing the tone of tale perfectly), Malkina’s windshield masturbation technique is both a display of her raw sexual energy and a confirmation that she’s dangerously unpredictable. “You think she knew what kind of effect this might have on a guy?” the Counselor asks. “Jesus, Counselor, are you kidding? She knows everything,” is Reiner’s reply. This is sex as power and currency, and there isn’t a doubt that Malkina’s wildly sexual nature masks a lethal cunning.
But elsewhere, McCarthy’s script and Ridley Scott’s direction serve as prime examples of how sex scenes can be rendered flaccid, and the the makers of “Fifty Shades Of Grey” would be advised to pay close attention. The film opens with pillow talk between the Counselor and his fiancée Laura, and like most pillow talk, if you’re not saying yourself, there is already a distance between the words and the act that’s difficult to bridge dramatically, let alone authentically sexily. And it’s a task made harder when that pillow talk is as dry as it is (“Tell me where you want me touch you”) and shot as hilariously, 2-AM-on-Cinemax way Scott does, with his camera literally roving beneath the shades. And a later sequence, in which the Counselor literally asks aloud, “Is this phone sex?” only underscores that if you have to ask… well, it’s probably not that good. One should note, both these two “sex scenes” are dirtier in the script and feel more sensual on the page, but they don’t really come off that way onscreen and perhaps that’s because they’re kind of neutered and not as raw.
“Hey-Its-That Guy!” Cameos
While the basic premise of “The Counselor” centers on one man’s spiritual collapse when he gets mixed up in the drug trade, the larger ambitions of the film aspire to paint a portrait of an enterprise where there are no moral considerations, only consequences. And to achieve that, the story presents a world of secondary, often fleeting characters, played by a sea of familiar faces. They sometimes have little bearing on the narrative, thematically, such as Edgar Ramirez’s priest who refuses to listen to Malkina’s confession (as we’ll get into more below). At other times, random scenes—such as the sequence with Dean Norris and John Leguizamo that could be a “Breaking Bad” deleted scene—only serve to underscore what we know, that drug dealers generally aren’t very nice. But even for the rare cameo that does add some texture, such as Toby Kebbell’s slimy ex-client of The Counselor’s, there’s another like Natalie Dormer’s mysterious The Blonde, that is merely there to serve little more than the machinations of the plot. And from Bruno Ganz’s diamond dealer to Goran Visnjic’s shady partner of Malkina’s, the movie doesn’t go long without a character actor or respected name showing their face in the movie. It’s just too bad that much of it serves very little purpose.
The Telegraphed Brad Pitt “Bolito” Scene
Early in “The Counselor,” Reiner (Bardem) is having one of the loopy, weirdly metaphysical conversations that the movie is littered with (and will long be remembered for), describing to The Counselor (Fassbender) how the bad guys kill people these days (you can see the beginning of the scene here). There’s a device, he describes, that has a small mechanical motor whose only job is to retract a metallic line made of some “unholy alloy.” It’s called a “bolito,” its motor clicks and whirs until that line is fully brought in. These very bad people, who the Counselor and Reiner are doing business with, they slip this line over your head, in a loop, and turn the motor on. There’s no way of shutting it down once it’s started, and the wire just cuts through your neck. When The Counselor asks if the person gets decapitated, Reiner shrugs and says “sometimes.” What’s more likely to happen is that the silvery noose cuts through major arteries in your neck, spraying blood all over the place in an epic crescendo of gore (he doesn’t say that last part but you get the idea). Two thoughts will probably run through your head while listening to Reiner’s long-winded ramble: one, the cow gun thingee from “No Country for Old Men” (utilized by Bardem) was way cooler, and two, gee I wonder who’s going to get this device slung around their neck? Well, if you guessed Brad Pitt, you were right! As cowboy-ish middleman Westray, Pitt almost makes it out unscathed but, at the last minute, in London no less, he falls victim to the device. He fights hard but eventually the wire cuts into his neck, letting loose a gory fountain of blood all over a tony London sidewalk. It’s truly disgusting and shocking, although coming from Scott, who let a alien burrow out of John Hurt’s chest in “Alien” (and more recently performed a harrowing space abortion in “Prometheus”), it’s not all that surprising. The last, wonderful WTF touch to the scene is, of course, a shot lingering on Pitt’s severed fingers, which he had wedged underneath the loop before it had fully tightened. Carnage candy.
So Many Cheetahs
One of the very first scenes in “The Counselor,” delivered, like the rest of the movie, free of context and with little bearing on the actual narrative, shows Reiner (Bardem) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz going for an Oscar or a Razzie with her go for broke vamping) watching as their pet cheetahs chase down rabbits on a dusty Texas plain (the kind McCarthy is very, very fond of). Later, we see Malkina after she’s come out of the swimming pool, with Scott lovingly fixating on the tattoo that runs down her shoulder and down her back: cheetah spots. The symbolism is so clear that it’s practically double underlined, especially as the movie drags on and Malkina’s motivations are made apparent. Even her name is derived from an ancient term for an “evil-looking female cat” (arcane! bookish!). But the pet cheetahs (names: Raoul and Silvia) aren’t the only jungle cats in “The Counselor.” More bizarrely, coming across as even more of a non sequitur, is the moment when the titular Counselor (Fassbender) takes his girlfriend Laura (Cruz) out on a date to propose. It’s a fancy dinner place, at least as fancy as you can get in El Paso, Texas, and there’s even a guy playing the piano. But sitting next to him, on some kind of stool or perhaps an elevated platform, is a cheetah. Just calmly sitting, pushing its ancient bloodlust down into a deep dark place and cordially making eye contact with the high-paying clientele of this restaurant. It got to the point where we wondered if pet cheetahs in Texas were a thing (we did the research; they are not). But maybe in McCarthyland they are.
That Bizarre Confession Scene
In a scene between the venomous Malkina (Diaz) and the more demure Laura (Cruz), they get to talking about Laura’s impending marriage to The Counselor (Fassbender). (All this after Malkina somewhat dismissively evaluates Laura’s ring.) Malkina asks about it being in a church, and then continues to pry more openly about Laura’s religion, asking if she reveals sexual things in the confession booth. Laura tries to laugh it off, but Malkina keeps pushing, until things become so uncomfortable that the scene kind of shuts down. Later, for no apparent reason, the flashy Malkina goes into a church and slides into the confession booth. Keep in mind that this is after we’ve learned that she has fucked a car and pretty much done every sexual act under the hot Texas sun. Maybe, perhaps, this sequence inside the confessional will give us some insight into her character and we’ll get to learn a little bit more about what makes the woman with the cheetah-dotted tattoo tick. But no. Instead, she just toys with the priest (played, thanklessly, by Edgar Ramirez), asking if he listens to women divulge sexual indiscretions and then offering to reveal some of her own (hopefully not the car-fucking stuff though). Again: this scene has no dramatic payoff. After a few minutes of watching Ramirez squirm and try to shut down Malkina’s attempts at vulgarity, he just fidgets out of the confessional and the scene abruptly ends. What, exactly the point of the sequence is, dramatically, is unclear since we already know that she’s a man-eating psychopath who fucks cars, and there is no payoff in a narrative sense because the priest, church, and confession is never brought up or referenced again. Instead, it’s one of the many dangling chads that hang loose in “The Counselor,” like Brad Pitt’s feathery hair.
Of course, this is just the tip of “The Counselor” weirdness iceberg (blood-splattered, of course). With repeated viewings, which we fully intend to do once the movie briskly makes its way to Blu-ray, maybe the purposeful aloofness will make way for general profundity, and the many threads of plot will somehow reconcile themselves. But we kind of doubt it. Maybe that will be the everlasting charm of “The Counselor,” though: that it was a slickly produced, all-star Hollywood thriller written by an A-list literary star and released by a major studio that still managed to be confounding in its strangeness and inability to conform to convention. Like the movie’s many cheetahs, it is lean, rare, and exotic. For better or worse. — Kevin Jagernauth & Drew Taylor with additional thoughts by Rodrigo Perez