Even with its compromises and overreaching philosophy, The Counselor is a pretty interesting film. It keeps you involved even when it's falling off the rails.
Michael Fassbender plays The Counselor who intends to make a big buck through a one-off drug trade with a Mexican drug cartel. He works with his friend Reiner and middle-man Westrey. Reiner (Javier Bardem) is playful, trusting and always in the present, reaping the benefits of the seeds he’s sown. He’s heard the worst of the party he’s in business with, but doesn’t seem keen on reconsidering the nature of their relationship. He doesn’t seem too interested in the ifs and coulds. All he knows is that things are fine as they are. Westray (Brad Pitt), on the other hand, is more aware of what he’s gotten himself into. He’s willing to take his chances as long as they come to him. But if things go awry, he has an immediate way out. He’s willing to leave everything behind if he has to. “It’s not that you’re going down. It’s what you’re taking down with you,” he echoes later in the film. The counselor pays heed to both men, who warn him repeatedly, but goes with the plan anyway, telling himself that this is only a one-time deal.
It is these warnings that ominously build this invisible workforce that the counselor is about to entangle himself with. There’s a real mystique built around it. Westray says, “You may think there are things that these people are simply incapable of. They are not.” We’re not allowed to see how this workforce operates or who’s behind it, but a mental image is ingrained in us. We feel this collective antagonist in spirit and anticipate it in fear like we do with a supernatural force from a horror film. It is the lead character of the film, and its creator, Cormac McCarthy, the star of the film. If you’re a fan of No Country for Old Men and love the innovative ways that McCarthy devises to kill people, The Counselor is certainly worth your time.
The question that exists in our minds is whether the counselor will be able to disentangle himself from this workforce or whether he’ll fall prey in the worst way possible- as an actor in a snuff film. We don’t know who heads this enormous, elaborate criminal organization, but we see its underlings in action. And I do believe film-maker Scott could’ve done without revealing the identity of this apex predator, because such a revelation only disappoints here. While McCarthy reveals it in a dark, devastating manner in his script, exploring the mindset of this character, Scott settles for merely pointing to this character and simplifying its motives. The revelation underwhelms the viewer, doing little justice to the mystique built around it. What’s worse is you see it coming miles away.
The Counselor’s plot revolves around an unfortunate coincidence. Westray says of the Mexicans, “They’ve heard of coincidences, they just haven’t seen one.” That line certainly got me thinking, building further mystique around this cartel. These people seem to leave very little to chance and want someone accountable for everything. They see their own greed in everyone else and hence cannot even entertain the possibility of this guy being innocent. They’re from a world where the innocence is extinct. The only human species that they’re aware of is one that wants, and wants, for itself. Reiner tells counselor early in the film that "the Mexicans" are fascinated by moral dilemma because it doesn’t exist in them. Westray exits his own meeting with the counselor implying that the antagonists might just be waging their war on human innocence.
The counsellor thinks he’s ‘a smartass.’ Or at least that’s what the film seems to say with a misplaced dialogue involving him and a client, and, more subtly, in pointing out his intolerance for mispronunciations. He has a methodical approach to his job, writing down everything he needs to remember. But going by the book seems to be of little use when you’re pitted against devious minds that think several steps ahead.
*SPOILERS* It seems intentional of McCarthy to place a lamb like Fassbender amongst these wolves. He gets in hoping to get out clean, but all it takes is an unfortunate coincidence to lose everything he has. When you come to think of it, it all begins with the purchase of a diamond ring for his fiancée. What becomes of him is shocking, but Fassbender fails to achieve the right notes in a vital scene in the film. Just like most of the cast here. They seem to be doing what they’re told. And when an entire cast fails, you can’t help but blame the man in charge.
The dialogues here don’t seem to entirely fit their respective characters. Not only do they seem out of place, they all bear the same voice- that of McCarthy’s. Everyone here speaks in analogies, metaphors, anecdotes, riddles or some other form of wordplay. This includes Reiner too, who is initially characterized as half-wit. After a point, it gets exhausting having to read between the lines. We never really understand what these people are really trying to tell each other. Or what McCarthy is trying to tell us. The film ends up becoming a diluted version of a powerful, intense, philosophical script. Better characterization and character development could’ve fixed some, if not all, of that.
While I will admit that there is a philosophical core here, I just couldn’t see it in its entirety. It remains buried beneath all the elaborate convolutions. Scott seems most to blame here. He’s either failed to fully grasp the material at hand or fully realize it. The latter might be attributed to his lack of trust in both, the viewer’s intelligence and the accessibility of the material at hand. He seems to believe that he needs to bridge a non-existent gap between the two. With faith in neither his audience nor his writer, he gets the job done unevenly. The film confounds us with its intricacies while also underwhelming us with a dumbed-down conclusion. Had Scott solely focused on the plot, The Counselor would’ve worked better, although less ambitious.
Most of the scene sequences here work independently, but they fail to add up to something concrete. All the grandiose themes hinted at only promise more than Scott is able to deliver. When I first read the script, it stuck with me for days. The film, though, is hardly a shoe in your stone. Perhaps, the Coens were better suited to adapting McCarthy.
Thoughts. Observations. Analysis. Spoilers-
The minute Malkina says “Truth has no temperature,” you know that Scott wants to keep an eye on her. Except, he doesn’t think one such clue is enough. He piles them on throughout the film until it becomes redundant and seemingly condescending. Even the casual conversations she has with the other characters seem to exist to emphasize and establish her character as the predator here. This comes off as inconsistent with, and comical in, a character that thinks and acts several steps ahead. Scott seems to scream, “Wait! Just watch! Keep your eyes on her!” It’s hard to pay attention to a film that has its creator looking over your shoulder.
I just couldn’t buy Malkina revealed to be the head of the Mexican drug cartel. Her motivation is unclear, and Scott seems content with simply telling us that she identifies as a predator. A truly compromised ending when compared to the script, which had her speak about how she sometimes wishes she could regain her lost innocence but remains unwilling to pay the price for it. Here, her character works with a core ideology that's painted in black-and-white; something along the lines of “Human beings share a predator-prey relationship with each other. You get to be only one of the two.” Scott stretches her unapologetic nature too much...it just doesn’t strike as real. In ensuring that she leaves the scene after uttering lines such as “I’m starving,” and “I’m famished”, Scott is only taking away whatever little subtlety the film has left to it.
Fassbender breaking down after an agonizing realization that his wife was used for a snuff film is clumsy and mechanical. His pain seems more externalized than internalized. Besides, isn’t acceptance the last stage of grief? All he needed to see was a disc with ‘Hola!’ written on it and he’s already begun to mourn his presumably dead wife. I also believe that Westray’s weakness for women could’ve been implied more subtly. Perhaps, Scott could’ve taken us casually through Westray’s working days showing us his weakness for women. Perhaps, he could’ve concocted a scenario that has Westray put his business on the line for a quickie. A ringing phone in the foreground with Reiner’s name on it as Westray has sex with a woman in the background could’ve done the trick without spelling it out for us. Here, Scott and McCarthy spoon-feed us by letting Westray admit his weakness to the counsellor as he self-assuredly lectures him on the drug trade. “You don’t know a man until you know what he wants” is all you need to hear to immediately recognize what is going to catch up with each of the men here. Westray’s biggest weakness though is that he believes he’s outdone his opponent even before the round is over. And ironically, he, just like the others, learns the hard way that the antagonist has been underestimated.
There’re so many scene sequences that have no place in the film. Like the one with the biker, who is pointlessly characterized with a cocky monologue. We don’t know him, nor do we ever find out. Really, what was the point of that stupid piece of dialogue? Alright, so the film-makers want to show us that he’s an unfriendly, no-nonsense guy. His death is merely a plot point and his character is of little consequence here. It serves no purpose in the film other than to further showcase McCarthy’s penchant for dialogue.
What was the point of bizarre sex scene involving Malkina? Why even tell us of something like this? Why go on to show it to us? All it seems to convey is that she might be dangerous and that Reiner fears her. What about her confession scene with the awkward priest? There’s no dramatic pay-off here, and it neither influences the narrative nor the plot in any manner.
The film-makers characterize Reiner as a failed raconteur. That they need an entire anecdote to tell us this points to their own failure as raconteurs, especially when such information has little influence on the film and its events. Also, did Reiner say he warned the counsellor two years back? There’re no guidelines that evidence this chronological leap.
Attempting to connect these stand-alone sequences with the rest of the film only befuddles you more than you already are. I’m not complaining about McCarthy’s long-windedness here, I’m just complaining of Scott’s inability to appreciate it. Perhaps, this is why he felt the need to make humour of Malkina’s stray leopards when the film’s main focus was the counselor’s kidnapped wife.