Readers of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script for the convoluted new thriller The Counselor, might ask who this movie’s Ultimate Evil is, the Judge Holden, the Chigurh, the suzerain of the earth, silent and serene. Is it the drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem)? Or the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges deals between men like Reiner and men who need a lot of cash? Or even the sallow-faced assassin (Sam Spruell) we see stringing wire across a desert highway, the better to separate a motorcyclist from his helmet and its contents? Or could it be the never-named Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose naïve dabbling in the drug trade stands to win him either $20 million or despair? Who in this amoral universe knows all, sees all, claims that nothing must be permitted to occur upon the earth save by his dispensation?
There’s an answer to that, late in the movie, and meanwhile we watch as the chess pieces, set in shaky motion, march towards a properly bleak McCarthy end. The Counselor is not so much a thriller, really, as it is a new gloss on McCarthy’s favorite conflict between the evil that knows too much and the good that doesn’t know nearly enough. The key, for those inclined to seek it, might lie in a late-inning phone chat between the Counselor and a cartel bigwig (Ruben Blades), who sounds like a somewhat gentler Judge Holden and speaks obliquely about crossings and events long set in stone. Over and over, the Counselor is himself counseled to avoid the path he wants to follow, and once he’s too far along the road, he is told it’s too late.
The movie is full of odd one-on-one conversations that may exasperate those who want the film to get to the point, but the dialogue is the point. It’s not snappy or clever, but it does evoke Hemingway in its weary fatalism and particularly its repeated assessment of women as a threat to the male Garden of Eden. Without women, you see, there would be nobody for men to impress with diamonds and other flashy indicators of wealth, and therefore no crime, no war. I don’t think the movie itself (or McCarthy) believes this — rather, it’s one more way in which the desperate and stupid men in the film sabotage themselves. The Counselor is not a feminist work — not with the old reliable madonna/whore construct represented by the Counselor’s innocent fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s cheetah-owning girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) — but it’s not a masculinist work either. McCarthy is not much into heroes except when he’s writing about the literal end of the world.
The Counselor is vaguely apocalyptic as it is, set in a world where cartel thugs dispatch the unwise with vicious time-activated nooses called bolitos — McCarthy digs sending human beings to their maker with implements that seem designed for use on livestock, as with Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. (In Cuba, a bolita refers to a lottery ball, and someone’s number comes up here.) The movie is being called violent, but the brutal bits are few and far between; we get what we need to keep our dread fresh. The Counselor has been directed by Ridley Scott outside his usual mode of ladling hot/cold visuals onto the screen to let us know that he, Ridley Scott, master visualist, directed it. As a result, it’s Scott’s best film in quite some time. He serves McCarthy’s story. We get the sense that the script magnetized everyone involved, who felt no need to diddle with anything or show off. The cast hums with a low intensity — there are no Oscar moments here, no disgraceful displays like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. This film isn’t getting, but should, the grateful accolades that Prisoners got, and shouldn’t have.
How seldom we see the feared cartel monsters, or even the drugs themselves, in this putative cartel thriller. Almost everyone in the movie is on the margins of the trade, profiting from it without getting their hands bloody. This isn’t a noir thriller featuring the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and desperate, desperate to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. The story is simple but told with a terse economy that doesn’t spoon-feed us the narrative. The Counselor is one of McCarthy’s late-period minimalist fables, philosophical in speech but plain in action, unlike the efflorescent wilderness of pain and madness painted in McCarthy’s gravestone work Blood Meridian. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” says Judge Holden in that book, “but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” We don’t see many drugs in The Counselor because the people may as well be clashing over rocks or sand or flags. The Judge or Chigurh of the movie is revealed before the credits roll, but ultimately the Judge and Chigurh represent human folly, the illusion of control over events save by our dispensation.