Skip to main content

Is it just me?... Or does The Counsellor deserve a re-trial?

In our regular polarising-opinion series, one Total Film writer argues that Ridley Scott's The Counsellor deserves a second chance.

Read on, and let us know your thoughts on the argument aired by having your say int the comments section below.

Is it just me... Or does The Counsellor deserve a re-trial? asks Philip Kemp

When it was released in 2013, The Counsellor was hit by a tsunami of largely dismissive reviews. (In The Hollywood Reporter, the usually perceptive Todd McCarthy wrote it off as “a bummer”.) OK, Scott’s a director whose ultra-versatile competence (just recently, Andrew Collins described him 
as “our hi-tech William Wyler”) can be scuppered by a poor script; think, if you can bear to, of Exodus: Gods And Kings or (gulp) G.I. Jane.

But for The Counsellor Scott had one of the world’s finest living novelists, Cormac McCarthy, riding shotgun with his first ever movie script. So what went wrong? Or did it?

True, McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country For Old Men, isn’t everyone’s idea of a light holiday read. Behind his sculpted prose lurks an uncompromising moralist, who believes actions have consequences and that there are few if any limits to human iniquity. (He was raised Catholic, for what that’s worth.)

Central to his bleak vision is the concept of a border, at once physical and moral; overstep that, you find yourself in a world where the most appalling things may happen to you and yours – indeed, they almost certainly will. And there’s no going back.

Often in McCarthy’s work that fatal divide is symbolised by the US-Mexican border. And so it is in The Counsellor. Played by Michael Fassbender, the eponymous lawyer (we never learn his name), in cahoots with his nightclub-owning friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), sets up a deal to run a truckload of drugs from Ciudad Juárez to Chicago, funded by a Mexican cartel. Inevitably he’s double- and triple-crossed.

By the end of the movie all his friends and associates, including his beautiful fiancée Laura (Penélope Cruz), have met with brutally unpleasant ends, and the once suave and self-confident Counsellor sits weeping in a south-of-the-border flophouse, awaiting his own fate. Sole winner is Bardem’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), her feline smile like a sliver of ice, who coolly absconds with the proceeds.

Scott’s impressive cast also includes Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Rubén Blades, Bruno Ganz and Goran Visnjic. And with its unforgiving biblical cadences, McCarthy’s dialogue makes few concessions to drab naturalism. “You are at a crossroads and here you think to choose,” Blades’ Mexican police chief tells the desperate Counsellor. “But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.” And so, with pitiless logic, the tale works itself out.

That rejection of verbal naturalism, and the fact that few of the characters are likeable, seems to be what put many critics off. But then you could say as much of Reservoir Dogs, or Billy Wilder’s classic Ace In The Hole. And as one of the film’s few favourable reviewers (ok, full disclosure, it was me) concluded: “Between them, Scott and McCarthy have created a film that in less accomplished hands could have slumped into melodrama, but that retains the grim humour, and the granitic implacability, of a classic morality tale.” Or is it just me?

Agree or disagree with Philip? Hit the comments section below to have your say!