In an industry dominated by sequels, adaptations and formulas, a thriller such as The Counsellor is sure to catch viewers by surprise. Some will warm to its oblique narrative, philosophy-loaded monologues, thick atmosphere, strong character bias and jolting, merciless violence; others will spill from the multiplex perplexed.
The plot, such as it is, sees Michael Fassbender’s Counsellor (we never learn his name) involve himself in drug trafficking on the Tex-Mex border. Why we don’t know, though he’s about to marry a gorgeous senorita (Penélope Cruz).
The deal, inevitably, goes south. It’s not The Counsellor’s fault. It’s bad luck, coincidence. But certain parties don’t believe in coincidences, and in this world you make your own luck. The repercussions are terrible, vicious and unthinkable.
And that’s your lot. The ins and outs of the drug deal are withheld, deemed unimportant. Like The Counsellor, we, the viewer, pay our money then know only scraps and slivers, confined to the periphery of the action.
The Counsellor flails his way through a murky, pitiless underworld governed by its own rules and regulations. Handsome, intelligent, he’s somebody in his own world but is here a nobody.
And he pinballs between unforgettable underworld players: Reiner (Javier Bardem), whose screaming shirts and mannerisms almost distract from his harem of big-breasted beauties in tiny bikinis; Reiner’s girlfriend – or rather he’s her boyfriend, for as long as she so chooses – Malkina (Cameron Diaz), with her pet cheetahs and predatory mind; and Westray (Brad Pitt), a long-haired, shades-wearing cowboy who advises The Counsellor but never pretends to be anything but a mercenary.
The performances are uniformly strong, with Diaz shading it, though Cruz’s role is underwritten. Ridley Scott’s hard-edged visuals are beautiful in their bleakness, all burnished sky and hi-def desert.
But this is Cormac McCarthy’s film, from its bold, sexual beginning to its enthralling monologues to its savage worldview. And while those only acquainted with the Coens’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men might be caught out – that’s his most plotted, pacy book – they will recognise the author’s determination to right a world gone wrong: fuck up and you’re fucked.
An absorbing thriller that favours vivid characters, profound ideas and Old Testament morals over propulsive plotting and set-pieces. With lots of blood.