Oh dear, where do I start? I went into this film — whose showing was conveniently aligned with a two-hour gap in my schedule, rather than because I specifically sought it out — with low expectations, to which the film was more than equal. I’ve read and enjoyed novels by Cormac McCarthy in the past, as I have watched and enjoyed films by Ridley Scott, though both are known for a certain pared-down muscularity to their work. It’s not simply that I did not connect with this product of their collaboration, because in many respects I admired the filmmaking on show, as found it to be actively offensive.
For a start, I’d call it misogynistic — and when a female character quite literally ends up dumped on a garbage tip, I don’t really know how it can be otherwise — but perhaps gynophobic would be more accurate to its creators’ intentions. Women are arch-manipulators of the men in the story, and it’s Cameron Diaz’s character Malkina who’s at the heart of this theme, using both her animal wiliness (she has a leopard-print design tattooed down her back) and her sexuality to control those around her. Even the suggestion of lesbianism is given in the context of the domination and control of a man. Perhaps a memorable scene on the windscreen of her boyfriend Reiner (Javier Bardem)’s car was going for the kind of self-conscious trashiness of the kind seen in say The Paperboy, but on screen it just comes across as bizarre and a bit hateful. Poor Penélope Cruz doesn’t really stand a chance then as the title character’s fiancée, and gets short shrift in the movie.
The focus then is on Michael Fassbender’s unnamed (legal) counsel to the flamboyant Reiner, with Bardem here, bedecked in colourful shirts and vertiginous hair, making a mid-career bid to become the next Nic Cage it seems. The setting is a textbook Mexican-border lawless Hell-on-Earth racist fantasia of the type that should seem pretty familiar to filmgoers by now, and it’s unsurprising that Fassbender’s Counselor gets in over his head in some shady drug dealings that go violently awry. Fassbender himself has little more to do than rush back and forth fretfully, reacting to what he’s told and what he sees, though he does this perfectly ably. As an actor, his face always seems to conceal a certain hardness of spirit, but here his character quickly sheds any semblance of this, testament perhaps to his chameleon-like acting talent.
If the acting is adequate and Ridley Scott’s visualisation of the story is competent, it’s in McCarthy’s script that much of the film’s weakness lies for me. Characters talk in laconically gnomic phrases suggesting emotional depths but more often laughably banal, at times pushed to ridiculous extremes (Bruno Ganz’s diamond merchant and Rubén Blades’s floridly eloquent gangster boss are particularly grating in this regard). Early on, there’s a lengthy description of a particularly gruesome decapitating contraption whose measured implacability comes to be a metaphor for the way the narrative itself operates over the second half of the film (though unsurprisingly it makes a literal appearance later on) — events unfold with nasty inevitability, and there’s little hope of redemption for anyone.
What we’re left with in The Counselor, then, is a bleak and nasty story of equal-parts calculating and helpless women, trapped men and violent Mexicans. Maybe I’m entirely missing the point and this in fact is Scott’s late-period masterpiece, but I doubt it. The characters are granted no reprieve, and nor is the audience.
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Cormac McCarthy; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013.