Early in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, an attorney (Michael Fassbender) meets with contacts in the drug trade, hoping to conduct a lucrative, one-time transaction. The contacts are two men, Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), and based on the parties involved, viewers could be excused for assuming the attorney is joining a boy’s club too. Throughout the film’s first act, Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy present a culture of testosterone, then spend later scenes toying with this impression—with limited success. As a film about the drug trade, The Counselor is occasionally bracing. As a film about gender and sexuality, it’s a forehead-slapping kind of disaster.
Fassbender’s character, known only as the Counselor, wears a series of exquisite suits, but he spends much of the film in extreme discomfort. After a murder and robbery for which some unseen cartel types consider the Counselor culpable, his circumstances deteriorate, the threat of death hanging over his head. Scott and McCarthy appear, momentarily, to be positioning Fassbender’s character as a Hitchcockian everyman—he’s a newcomer to a secretive culture, suddenly facing impossible odds. But unlike Hitchcock’s heroes, the Counselor never has the option of rising to the occasion. Men like Westray tell him as much. As news of the robbery spreads, the Counselor’s colleagues explain that there’s no use fighting back. His innocence of the particular crime is irrelevant, and he’s left to contemplate the inevitability of his own murder.
What pathos viewers might find in this outcome is undermined by the film’s insistence that readers recognize the Counselor’s fate as plainly as he does. McCarthy’s screenplay includes a pair of conversations about accepting death that manage to be both cryptic and literal-minded and which are certainly overlong. These exchanges give Fassbender the chance to cry and beg and approach understanding, all of which he does with commitment.
McCarthy’s inventive approach to violence appears to have energized Scott, a director years removed from his most striking works. The film comes alive—pardon the pun—during its various killings and gunfights, which Scott directs with measured intensity and visual wit. (The decapitation of a motorcyclist shown in trailers for the movie is only one of two creative beheadings.) But McCarthy’s ambitions as a screenwriter go beyond bloodletting, and they’re not always compatible with Scott’s direction. At times, The Counselor plays as a Syriana for the world of drug cartels. The film introduces new characters, usually absent a name, at intervals throughout its runtime, then discards them. The effect would be more disorienting if the conversations these characters have weren’t all presented with the same removed grimness. The Counselor has the unpredictability that comes with lack of focus, but a tonal monotony that robs the film of its ability to really surprise or confound.
No Country for Old Men proved that McCarthy’s dialogue can be delivered onscreen—can be spoken out loud—though perhaps Joel and Ethan Coen were more conscientious editors than Ridley Scott and McCarthy himself. Bruno Ganz, in a brief appearance, gives the most convincing line readings of all The Counselor’s players—he has the accumulated gravitas to say, of diamond values, “The stones themselves have their own view of things.” As Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina, Cameron Diaz is saddled with the screenplay’s most cumbersome phrases. McCarthyisms like “Nothing is crueler than a coward” and “The hunter has grace, beauty, and purity of heart” land with a clunk during her scenes. And as the film progresses and the focus shifts from the male characters, Cruz gets plenty of chances to utter them.
Early in the film, Malkina doesn’t exactly lurk in the background—viewers meet her while she’s playing with cheetahs—but Scott and McCarthy first frame her as a bounty for Reiner’s drug-trade success. As chaos builds, though, Malkina avoids harm and emerges wealthier for the killings that have taken place. Unlike the men around her, she has what it takes to be an underworld player. In synopsis form, Diaz’s outmaneuvering of the film’s male leads might read as subversive in its own right. But The Counselor creates its own context for her actions: one of fear and hostility toward women. The scene in which Diaz simulates sex on/with the hood of a convertible will likely take on a second life as an object of Internet ridicule—it’s a moment of Showgirls-like cheese and excess. Even the Counselor reacts with amusement when Reiner describes it to him. And yet Reiner is haunted by the moment—he has bypassed arousal and landed at a near-existential revulsion. “You see a thing like that, it changes you,” he says.
With spiked hair and orange sunglasses, Bardem’s Reiner is somewhat of a figure of fun here (and credit where it’s due, he’s obviously having fun). Even so, the film does not dismiss Reiner’s story completely—Scott and McCarthy play the effect of Malkina’s display for laughs but also treat it as credible. Were Reiner more perceptive, later scenes suggest, he might have understood Malkina’s display on the convertible as a warning. Earlier in the film, Reiner and Westray suggest to the Counselor, in separate conversations, that their relationships with women are their points of weakness. Westray delays his exit from the drug trade because he enjoys the company of women too much. For Reiner, “smart women” are “an expensive hobby,” and a dangerous one—and the film more or less agrees. The Counselor wants to explore female sexual power and male hubris, but does so through a narrative that empathizes with the story’s dude contingent even as their lives are demolished.
In another context, The Counselor’s positioning of Reiner and Westray as Malkina’s victims might have played as bold or disruptive. After all, if professional handsome-men Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem are helpless in the face of female sexuality and cunning, what chance does anyone have against it? But the film also positions female sexuality and cunning as more or less the same thing. The alternative to the precarious machismo of the film’s hard men is a femininity that’s predatory and worth fearing. The Counselor disappoints as a film not only because of these dubious messages but because Scott presents them with the same dogged literal-mindedness that hampers Fassbender’s scenes. For example, viewers know Malkina is a predator because we first glimpse her with her pet cheetahs and see her cheetah-print tattoo thereafter. (For good measure, the film also detours into a confession booth so she can freak out a Catholic priest with some sexy talk.)
Malkina is not The Counselor’s only female role or example of female sexuality. Penelope Cruz plays the Counselor’s pious fiancé, Laura, who is uncomfortable with both Malkina’s brazenness and the Counselor’s lavish tastes. But the film shows little interest in Laura beyond her usefulness as a point of contrast. In other words, Scott and McCarthy’s false binary swallows up the character. Rather than demonstrating a third way between predatory femininity and hapless masculinity, Laura exists to put Diaz’s character into greater relief and then becomes evidence of the Counselor’s errors in judgment. In the end, his story becomes hers.
For that matter, maybe the Counselor’s story is the viewer’s story too. We enter a situation of high promise, and despite some early rewards, we’re left with ugly results. Despite The Counselor’s ambitions, it proceeds with a plodding inevitability, and by the time cartel thugs abduct Malkina in a parking lot, the possibility of a turnaround has vanished. Scott and McCarthy’s film is disorienting by design. This does not excuse the moments in which it is dumb. In attempting to dramatize a contest between the sexes, they’ve mostly implied that they have little to say on the topic.