Drugs, diamonds, betrayal, and bloodshed go hand in hand in Ridley Scott’s latest film. The Counsellor is a gritty crime thriller with an all-star cast that is based on an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy. In recent years McCarthy’s novels have made stellar transitions to screen (The Road, No Country for Old Men), and The Counsellor continues to explore an area prominent in his novels: the border between extremes.
Taking place between Juarez, Mexico and Texas, USA, the lines between wealth and poverty, crime and law, and need and greed are much more porous than the border that separates the locations. The disparate worlds are quickly established in the opening scenes of the film – an affluent American lawyer (Michael Fassbender) and his fiancé Laura (Penelope Cruz) between the cool white sheets of their bed. A stash of cocaine being loaded into a filthy sewerage truck somewhere in Mexico. A colourful drug baron, Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his bejewelled girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) sipping cold drinks in the hot desert as they watch their pet cheetahs hunt jack rabbits. The border between the lawful and criminal worlds disappears when Fassbender’s character (only referred to as ‘counsellor’ throughout) decides to become involved in drug running with Reiner and Malkina, through a business associate Westray (Brad Pitt). But as some unexpected incidents lead the plan out of control, Fassbender’s character comes to the terrible realisation that all that glitters is not gold.
And unfortunately, that terrible realisation quickly becomes clear to audience members also. Despite having what seems to be an interesting set-up by McCarthy, with good performances by great actors in stunning locations and with an incredible director, the film never manages to take off. Throughout the close to two hours running time, The Counsellor asks us to consider some weighty questions – is there a limit to greed? Is choice an illusion? McCarthy has created a story that is rich in grand themes and ideas, but ultimately is unable to express them because the audience is only given the superficial layers of his cast of characters.
There are some good moments the film, the dialogue is intelligent and philosophical. Javier Bardem plays a wonderfully lavish Miami Vice style drug baron, and the open shots of the desert, the dark clubs, the fast cars, and the occasional decapitations that make up the film weave together to create a convincing world. But ultimately it falls of deaf ears because the audience doesn’t have an engaging story to guide them through it.
Whether it is because the novel is a more natural form for McCarthy (whose previous on-screen successes were adapted from the novel by established screenwriters), or because he was purposefully setting out to attempt to subvert character and story structure is irrelevant to the end result – which a sequence of events that is almost impossible to connect to or be interested in, because the characters lack any compelling motivation for their actions. The Counsellor will undoubtedly go on to become the foundation stone around which screenwriting and storytelling workshops are built for generations to come.
Published in Gazette Group titles (Swords Gazette, Malahide Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Castleknock Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 21st Nov 2013.