As both storytellers and audience members, we tend to have a natural affinity for the exceptional individual. We see characteristics of charm, intelligence, wit, and we naturally associate these things with the person worth cheering for, the one who will prevail. When an otherwise good person does the wrong thing for the right reason, we want them to get the better of the morally inferior villains who set out to do them harm. We love watching tourists in the murky depths of criminality outwitting the people who make their living there.
You are a story that seeks to decimate and rebuke these romantic notions, The Counselor, and you succeed with a ruthlessness and sense of purpose that only adds to the sense of dread and inevitability that pervades your tale. Each line of dialogue is a single thread, each action and reaction the deft and foreboding stroke of the needle. Thus, you craft a great tapestry of ideas, writ in blood and pain.
Michael Fassbender plays the titular Counselor, a man draped in affluence who nonetheless finds it necessary to exploit his criminal connections for a quick, large payday. He is aided by Westray (Brad Pitt) and Reiner (Javier Bardem), who have more of an inkling than the Counselor the dangers he might face. Each in turn does their best to apprise him of the situation, the complications that can arise, and the brutal nature of the mechanism of which they are about to become a part.
Of course the Counselor believes he can be insulated from the dangers around him by his interior codes. He won’t get too greedy, he won’t betray the trust of the cartel, and he won’t allow himself to be caught. The problem, however, is that even though he may be a man of character and consistency, he lives in a chaotic world and is working within an organization with codes as rigid and unyielding as his own. When the randomness of the world affects the plan in play, the first and most obvious inference of the cartel is the one they will run with, and the truth of the matter becomes lost in the scrum to correct the perceived imbalance.
There is an innate absurdity to the tale at play here. Reiner is dating a woman named Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who seems to live in a world of heightened and unknowable narcissism. She knows the cost of everything, but values nothing. She wields her sexual power over men as a kind of obfuscating mechanism to gain what she wants. She weeps not for the worlds she has made and burn, but instead works tirelessly to construct for herself new and better worlds. Her arch villainy is almost too much to bear, especially when she is juxtaposed against people who seek more than material wealth.
Fassbender plays the cool and calculating Counselor with all the ease we might expect of our handsome leading man, and we are never in doubt of his mastery over his own destiny, until the moment when something he could never have planned for, foreseen, or anticipated marks him out for punishment. His situation is Kafkaesque in its twisted lack of fairness, and yet the bloody arithmetic of the cartel, which had constantly been spelled out to him before, makes perfect sense. Yet he cannot believe his hopelessness, just as we cannot. There’s a specific kind of betrayal one feels when they realize that perception outweighs reality, but the drug trade is a business, and businesses cannot get hung up on details when an easy solution is at hand.
Watching the Counselor and Westray and Reiner struggle to adapt to the new situation, struggling to understand what happened and why they are powerless to change it, is both dreadful and tragically comic. It is like watching a snail attempt to outrun a car – the prospect of the gruesome death of the animal is galling, but the earnestness with which it attempts to escape is so misdirected and futile that one can’t help but laugh at wasted earnestness.
You are a film that some may not love. The characters speak in archaic, stoic dialogue. The words they speak are arranged and paired in ways that make no sense in our common world, yet considering that the world there people are living in is so far removed from the common world it makes sense. Writer Cormac McCarthy (my favorite living author) is fascinated by the stunning mechanics of a world that doesn’t know or care what to do with us, and his characters’ monologues and dialogues regarding the way in which something close to fate or chance has destroyed them are spellbinding. There is a pragmatism and futility to his view of the world, but not out of some greater malice. Things just happen, and when the circumstances change we cannot lay waiting for them to go back. The tide cannot be turned back by a single man, and even when it recedes on its own the beach will never be as it was. This isn’t nihilism, this is reality. We are not the arbiters of our fate, we are passengers of circumstance.
Director Ridley Scott adds style to the proceedings, the digital cinematography adding to the brilliant otherworldliness on display. The actors all give their all, even Diaz, who has the most potentially problematic character. Nothing part of you feels right, so to speak, but all of it feels completely correct for the story you are striving to tell.
So I bid you farewell, my bizarre and entrancing friend, and I hope that chance and circumstance might conspire that we should meet one another again and again. And until then, you can be sure that I will be thinking about you.
With singular joy,
Brian J. Roan