As if prompted by Oliver Stone’s cartel-themed drug drama Savages, in which Benicio del Toro gulped down co-star Blake Lively’s saliva and later likened it to fried chicken, fellow Hollywood heavyweight Ridley Scott breaks bad with another star-driven sun-baked story about dodgy deals and gnarly repercussions.
The Counselor is set on the Tex-Mex border, with Michael Fassbender headlining as a lawyer known only by his eponymous title. It’s unclear whether the language with which he is regarded — “hello Counselor,” “goodbye Counselor,” “thank you Counselor,” “‘scuse me Counselor — is intended to mark an Eastwood-like man with no name, duty bound and purpose driven, or is being used for ironic reasons.
Then again a lot is left willfully unclear in the debut screenplay of Cormac McCarthy, writer of Pulitzer-winning post-apocalyptic walkabout novel The Road and the literary source of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning manhunt drama No Country for Old Men (2007).
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McCarthy’s agents expected him to hand in his latest novel and instead the 80-year-old author turned in a script, which Scott snapped up and attached a bevy of stars including Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz.
In hindsight that moment provided an early indication there was something big-headed about The Counselor from the get-go, a my way or the highway cold-shoulder towards template drama that makes it into the finished product and then some — from its protracted opening pillow talk scene in which Cruz asks Fassbender to go down on her, ironically set underneath virgin-white bed sheets, to the wonky threading that connects its characters and plotlines.
Details of a $20 million drug deal that piques the interest of the Counselor and sees him sweating and scheming on the opposite side of the law are nebulously defined. They involve the co-operation of two clients: a cowboy middleman played by Pitt and Bardem’s gabby playboy, whose wild eyes, perpetually in search of marching powder or a dance floor, swirl in circles from behind rose-tinted shades and below a mat of spiky electric hair.
Bardem is ice cool, a magnetic performance that sends his oily bisexual charisma from Skyfall (2012) swinging into a more atavistic setting, collecting sparks along the way. A sense of danger and uncertainty hangs around him. We don’t know what this man is capable of or can confidently gauge his motivations. Pitt’s ghost-who-walks character is similarly vague.
There’s a gonzo sense of madness to the story’s architecture. Not in the way that word tends to be misused — as a synonym for druggy, hallucinogenic and wild — but in the sense McCarthy has assigned himself, or at least his ego, a central role in the narrative. Audiences will doubtlessly be put off by an ambivalence towards orderly writing and structure. At least some of the film’s appeal comes from Cormac evidently wanting to take the piss — and Scott putting his eyes up to the test tube, trying to make sense of the sample.
There’s a clear peak to the delirium, a high-water mark from which The Counselor’s follies can be put into perspective, and it’s a show-stopper. We watch a spread-legged Diaz have intercourse with a convertible, the astonished glint in Bardem’s eyes passing on more than a complete vision of this “cat fish” moment ever could. Cronenberg; Crash; heart out; etc.
A terrific conversation between Fassbender and a world weary Mexican gangster who disappears as quickly as he arrives, some kind of tequila-scented harbinger of death, hints at what the film is about: the horrible task of coming to terms with how one’s destiny is being written in the brief window before the book is snapped shut.
As Fassbender’s glum protag finds himself over his head in murky unknown territory, there is a sense the production around him is also treading in risky waters, thrusting itself into situations Scott and McCarthy regard with little obligation to resolve. That synergy is weird and oddly wonderful. The answer to The Counselor’s riddles are obscured behind a weird-ass poker face that’s readable if you want it to be, and impenetrable if you don’t, or can’t, jive with the film’s whacked-out sense of self-importance.
The Counselor’s Australian theatrical release date: November 7, 2013.