The Counselor, revisited

Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for The Counselor (2013) is an examination of evil that will probably fly right over the heads of most viewers. It is more of a personal statement and a work of art than a Friday-night entertainment. As a date movie, the film is a disaster. It won’t get you laid.

McCarthy’s work finds evil in the banality of everyday life. His most beautiful landscapes, described in novels such as All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, can be read as sinister, as something that could easily end a man’s life. Corruption is everywhere; religion is merely a sham pulled down over the eyes of Man. No wonder he’s far more comfortable describing the inner-workings of a drug cartel than portraying an “innocent” person like the fiancé of his protagonist, known only as “Counselor.” McCarthy takes the cartel far more seriously than any concept of innocence.

Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) directed the script, lending his usual authorial gloss to the mostly awful proceedings. Creatively, the pairing of McCarthy with Scott is a match made in heaven, though for the viewer, it provides a touch of hell. Scott’s visual eye is unique among filmmakers; he always finds the shiny, reflective surface, the warm lamplight, the fiery-red sunset that makes his frame unlike any other director’s. Blade Runner, with its rain-soaked neon, shadowy corridors, and ruinous glamor, changed the way movies “looked.” It was no longer enough simply to show action; the action had to take place in a production-designed, cinema-photographed setting. The lighting had to be just right for the sock on the chin, the camera in just the right place for the bullet to enter flesh. Scott is the flashiest, most superficial of directors, and I don’t mean that as an insult. He treats viewers to all the pretty sights as they trip down McCarthy’s primrose path to hell.

Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, a man as slickly superficial as Scott’s direction (it’s all of a piece, you see). We first meet him in bed with his girlfriend (and soon-to-be fiancé), Laura, played by Penelope Cruz. Scott goes for broke here. Playful at first, the happy couple soon start asking each other for oral and/or digital sex. The camera snuggles with them beneath the (translucent white) sheets, and it occurred to this viewer that they might as well have been coupling beneath a funeral shroud. They’re already dead; they just don’t know it.

How well you handle this opening scene will tell you everything you need to know about how well you’ll handle what follows. The scene is uncomfortable, awkward, and in some ways, unnecessary. Yet it sets up the lustful possessiveness the Counselor feels toward Laura. Though graphic (we see him rubbing her between her thighs), the scene somehow isn’t sexy. It is coldly clinic, like the violence to follow. Thanks to the characters’ obsession with sex (and sex talk), we think we are being set up for an adult romance. Later, the obsession switches from sex to brutality. These gringos with their fancy clothes and words are about to be taught a harsh lesson in an altogether different world that’s only a stone’s throw away.

Scott suggests this from the opening frame: a shot of a motorcyclist speeding down a desert highway, a whip-pan tracking his wasp-like trek. The rider is known only as the Green Hornet, whose fate will change the story’s trajectory. We see the Green Hornet in the distance as the camera pans from exterior to interior, revealing our happy couple twinning in the sheets. A world of violence and death can literally be seen from their window.

The film is about two things: the Counselor’s hubris (he can’t believe anything in the cartel’s world will touch him), and the indifferent machinery of the universe, which crushes the innocent as well as the guilty. If anyone is qualified to write about these subjects, it’s McCarthy, whose Blood Meridian contains many of the same discussions. (In fact, The Counselor can in some ways be considered an adaptation of that novel, in terms of its blood-soaked, nihilistic vision.) The Counselor wants to “wet his beak” (to quote Godfather II) in the money flow generated by the cartel, explaining to his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) that “my fucking back is up against the wall.” But he thinks he can preserve his safe, comfortable lifestyle, which includes Laura, whom he objectifies by (ridiculously) calling her a “glory.” (Not even she understands what he means by this.) It’s the ultimate folly; everyone in the movie but the Counselor himself sees it as his undoing.

The story progresses along two lines: the passage of a shipment of drugs from Mexico to Chicago, and the Counselor’s procurement of an expensive diamond, which he will use to secure Laura’s hand in marriage. The drugs are contained in a septic truck that passes unnoticed between the two countries; it travels along dusty backroads where undocumented immigrants pass. Meanwhile, the Counselor flies all the way to Amsterdam to buy the stone from a diamond merchant who seems to know much more than he lets on.

Or does he? This merchant, played with sinister intelligence by Bruno Ganz, launches into a lengthy explanation of diamonds, what they represent, and how his trade ties in with the Biblical Jews. The Counselor thinks he follows this soliloquy (the first of many laid down by McCarthy), when in fact, all he wants to know is cost. The price of the diamond will ultimately be his soul.

Does the merchant suggest this in his highly symbolic speech? Yes, I think he does, especially when he talks about Christ and a vengeful god. This sermon is mirrored by another one later in the film, when the Counselor is in an altogether different position.

We are treated to suggestions of the power and reach of the cartel early on – this will clearly be a movie about a drug deal gone bad – but the real villain of the piece is a certified femme fatale called Malkina, played to varying degrees of success by Cameron Diaz. We first see Malkina in the high desert, dressed like she’s on safari, observing with cold pleasure one of her cheetahs taking down a jack rabbit. Tattooed with leopard spots, Malkina herself is the story’s apex predator, the other characters merely her food.

She has Reiner on a leash. He is her pet, seen in a servile role, mixing drinks and grilling steaks as they watch the cheetahs track their prey. Malkina seems to have no regard for anything; as the cheetah goes in for the kill, her eyes slide over to Reiner. Message received.

Reiner is involved in the deal but we are not told his precise level of involvement. We know the Counselor wants in on the transaction, which, strangely, already seems to be in progress. We also know the Green Hornet is involved, at least as a go-between. The Counselor views the deal as an investment opportunity; when Reiner tries explaining to him just how deep the rabbit hole goes, the words have no meaning. The Counselor – who, ironically, is incapable of accepting counsel – seems to shrug them off.

There is a third party in the deal: Westray, an ersatz cowboy played with sly charisma by Brad Pitt. The Counselor holds a clandestine meeting with Westray in a bar, and is offered one last chance to back out of the deal (which neither we nor the Counselor fully understand). “I’m good,” the Counselor insists, before going on to talk about money. We are reminded of the earlier conversation with the diamond merchant, who spoke earnestly of a “cautionary” stone. This will be a cautionary tale about a man who is advised to look before he leaps … and ignores the advice.

In a scene at Reiner’s mansion, we learn two things: one, that Malkina cannot be trusted, and two, that the cartel represents an implacable destructive force. Reiner suspects Malkina of eavesdropping on his conversations, because she’s a woman, and women, in his world, are not to be trusted. Yet he talks to the Counselor anyway. (Reiner is either willfully stupid, or resigned to his own place in an indifferent universe.) Like Westray, he finds it necessary to warn the Counselor of the dangers to come, by describing to his friend the “bolito.”

“Do you know what a bolito is?”

Here Scott does an amazing thing: he has his characters sit down and talk. Most movies “show” rather than “tell,” but in classic McCarthy tradition, the opposite happens here. Reiner shows intimacy (and trust) by informing the Counselor about a murder weapon from hell, deployed by the cartels under certain circumstances. Again, most directors would cut away to a bolito doing its horrible work. But here, Scott lets Bardem’s acting and our imagination carry the moment. It is ten times more effective.

The bolito, as Reiner describes it, is a decapitating noose from which there is no escape. Made from “an unholy alloy,” the garrote, once slung over the victim’s neck, continues tightening on its own until the carotid artery is severed, splashing all the spectators with blood. “It cuts the guy’s head off?” the Counselor blithely inquires. “It can,” Reiner replies.

The effect is to implant the idea of Chekov’s gun: If you show it in the second act, you’ve got to use it in the third. The bolito stays out there in the ether, not landing until just the right moment, long after we’ve forgotten Reiner’s warning. Yet it is employed on a character we least suspect.

This is McCarthy’s method: to have one character set up a payoff that doesn’t come quite the way we expect. Indeed, Reiner informs the Counselor (and, thereby, us) that “you won’t see it coming.” So it is with poetic justice that the garrote is put to use. The character who at one point brags about his ability to “disappear, with my money,” never sees it coming.

The Counselor receives two warnings: the first from Reiner, not just about the bolito, but the “moral decisions” awaiting him “if you go down this road.” The second is from Westray, who twice brings up the subject of snuff films. The Counselor is not a moral man; he’s incapable of seeing past his own greed or thinking in moral terms. When Westray suggests he think about cartel murders the next time he “does a line,” the Counselor angrily replies, “I don’t do drugs.” The hypocrisy of this statement is what gets him in trouble in the first place. He doesn’t do drugs himself, therefore he’s not culpable. And besides, he’s only involved with the cartel for financial gain. That they’re pushing drugs is no concern of his.

The Counselor’s moral blankness is his downfall, but as Westray says, “it’s not that you’re going down, it’s who you’re taking with you.” It should be clear early on that he’s taking Laura with him, but the film perversely never shows the Counselor paying the final price. Laura is the one who is put upon “the wheel,” in an act so bluntly horrific that it’s over and done before the Counselor – now reduced to a shell of a man – can respond.

The murder and defilement of Laura – we last see her corpse on a garbage heap – is the final kick in the gut. The Counselor is no mere crime picture about a drug deal gone wrong, but a horror film where three weak individuals are not only slaughtered by a more powerful force, but seem obliged to accept their fate. Westray admits he “should have jumped ship long ago,” but stayed aboard due to one weakness: “women.” (It’s a honey trap that gets him killed.) Reiner admits his distrust of the lethally duplicitous Malkina, yet stays with her to the very end. (“I’m afraid of losing her.”) And the Counselor is told repeatedly – by those in the know – that the cartel business is a deadly one. Yet he understands only money, that he needs it to capture Laura’s hand. (She becomes the “surety” in the deal that Westray cryptically mentions.) Above and behind it all is Malkina herself, who learns from her mistakes and works out a new, altogether vicious plan.

I mentioned that Diaz plays Malkina to varying success. It’s a performance that must have been hard for the actress to nail. As written, Malkina must conceal multiple motives, one seeming to contradict the other. She wants to seduce Laura as much as to punish her for her naiveté. Likewise Reiner: she needs to keep him on the hook, but his stupidity is almost more than she can stand. She hints at her true self but can never fully reveal it. Diaz at times seems caught between conflicting narratives: she’s bragging about her motives while trying to play everyone’s friend. It’s a tricky role, and I’m not sure Diaz was game enough for it. As a result, Malkina is almost the film’s weakest aspect. (Her over-the-top dialogue is no help.)

The film crashed at the box office and crated with critics. But it might be rediscovered years from now as a lost classic, not unlike Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, which was similarly reviled. Yes, the film has its problems. The narrative has some holes, Diaz’s performance is a bit cloudy, and some of McCarthy’s dialogue is unworkable in the format of a thriller. I also am not enamored of the visualization of Malkina’s fucking of Reiner’s Ferrari. Malkina herself is something of a problematic character; she might work better as an idea than a human being (especially one given such dialogue!). But read as a horror movie about an insatiable machine requiring human sacrifices, The Counselor is a terrifying experience.  

Sink or swim?

One of these statements is true: Waterworld is A) a vile piece of garbage or B) a misunderstood classic that was ahead of its time. I’m going to go with option B, and yes,  you read that right.

Waterworld was already famous (and much-loathed) before it came out in 1995. It was known as the most expensive movie ever made and the one that would surely capsize Kevin Costner’s career. There was lots of palm-rubbing and lip-smacking; hardly anyone could wait for the film to flop.

Turned out, the movie wasn’t great, but it was hardly a turkey. And, it eventually turned a profit. Or not. Some call it the biggest turkey of all time. Others claim it never made any money it all. It depends on who’s trying to twist the knife.

Viewed today, in glorious 4K ultra-high definition, Waterworld reveals itself as either a cult classic or maybe a camp classic (I’ll accept either). But it is a terrific, old-school entertainment of a kind they definitely don’t make anymore.

Watching it, I realized how easily this film could bear the stamp of Christopher Nolan. It has big sets, big ideas, enormous practical effects, and a couple of good twists that Nolan today might want to capture on his beloved IMAX cameras. Back in 1995, a $200 million price tag seemed to be a mark of shame. Today, of course, studios think nothing of spending $200 million on the catering alone. Would Infinity Wars or Endgame have made nearly as much of a splash if they hadn’t outspent the likes of Waterworld?

The movie might be silly and at times kind of trashy, and it’s clear that all involved set out to make Mad Max on the Pacific. I find the film highly entertaining, a Western on the high seas, an old-fashioned action-adventure that at least tries to do something different.  You can’t blame these guys for trying.

Sure, Costner plays a Mer-man. He puts himself in situations that draw chuckles here and there. But watch his performance. That’s actually Costner doing his own stunts, leaping and swinging and flying around that (amazing) trimaran off the coast of Hawaii (or Mt. Everest, in the film). His gills are goofy, but what’s wrong with that? I’ve seen far worse in films that weren’t nearly as well-made or as imaginative.

The second and third acts might be draggy, as Costner’s Mariner slowly thaws toward two female stowaways (Jeanne Tripplehorn, surprisingly game, and Tina Majorino, very good) who hold the key to the fabled Dryland. But there’s no denying the excitement of Act One, where Mariner gets detained at the massive floating atoll and is about to be “recycled” when Dennis Hopper and his merry marauders (the Smokers) arrive. The whole movie could have been built around the story of an outsider who wanders into a desperate human outpost. The action is intense, the stunts are magnificent, and it all works incredibly well. (Do I chuckle at the flying skiers? Sure!)

Costner developed a reputation as Mr. Post-Apocalypse, following this challenging (and only modestly successful) project with an outright flop, The Postman. But enough time has passed for us to re-evaluate these admitted B-movies in light of climate change, the Trump Administration, etc. In my view, they hold up surprisingly well. Costner’s post-apocalyptic Westerns provide food for thought, and did what directors like Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are fighting for today. Waterworld deserves another day in court.

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