Death becomes them

Death becomes them

Literary film packs a very dark punch

By Tim Pompey 10/31/2013

The Counselor
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
1 hr. 57 min.

For those who love literature — books, poetry, the whole nine yards — this film will come as a real treat. That’s because The Counselor is a novel within a film, a literary work expressed in front of the camera.


Screenwriter Cormac McCarthy is one of America’s greatest living novelists. Don’t know who he is? Never read his books? You’ve certainly seen them on the big screen: All the Pretty Horses, The Road, No Country for Old Men.

But this is his first screenplay and this story is pure McCarthy — full of black humor, meditations and characters who learn the hard way that life, at its core, is unpredictable, deadly and unforgiving.

On the surface, The Counselor is about a drug deal gone bad. The Counselor himself (Michael Fassbender) is a defense attorney from El Paso who decides that he’d like an extra-large slice of the economic pie.

Not that he’s struggling. He has a successful law practice, a beautiful fiancee named Laura (Penélope Cruz) to whom he gives a lavish diamond as an engagement ring, and he’s about to open up a nightclub with business partner Reiner (Javier Bardem).

But he wants more. And herein is the McCarthy dilemma. What forces get set in motion when a man decides to deal with the devil? Because this really is a spiritual tale, admittedly a dark one, and that devil is Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Carmen Diaz), who knows a thing or two about diamonds, high finance and dealing drugs across the border.

The mediator in all of this is middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who sets up the deal between the Counselor and a Mexican cartel in Juarez. He warns the Counselor what’s coming. The Counselor doesn’t listen. The wheels are set in motion.

When the deal gets hijacked by a series of double crosses, things start to go south quickly. People disappear and die and the counselor finds that dealing with the devil has a personal price. A steep one.

What sets this film apart from other so-called drug cartel films is the brilliant partnership between director Ridley Scott and writer McCarthy. It’s Scott’s task to capture the setting for McCarthy’s tale. The scorching Texas/Mexico border. The contrast between rich and poor. Most of all, the brutal inevitably of death itself among drug runners and the loss of life among the innocent families who often become their victims. Scott succeeds, setting the table for the story itself.

McCarthy cuts to the chase, using his dark humor and blunt-force storytelling to show the power of the forces of darkness and how the characters involved in these dealings seem to take the whole thing so casually. That is, until the trap shuts and the dying begins.

There’s a soulful soliloquy at the end of this film by drug broker Jefe (Rubén Blades) about accepting the results of your bad choices, how pointless it is to complain about a deed and its inevitable consequences. Classic McCarthy:  quiet, harsh, cutting.

Add to this a stellar cast. Fassbender as the wheeler dealer attorney, Bardem as the jovial spiky-haired playboy and, most of all, Diaz as the sex kitten who has honed her life down to her basic animal instincts. It’s no wonder she loves cheetahs. She and the cats are one and the same.

This is one of those films that will come and go among American audiences, but over the course of a decade or two, will be accepted by film connoisseurs as a classic. Sometimes it takes a while for good art to catch on. With The Counselor, you have an opportunity to say, I was there when it happened. Don’t miss this chance. The art gods have convened to bear a child. You should be there to watch.


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