Full of pet cheetahs with diamond-encrusted collars, sports cars, obscenely opulent parties and spectacularly bloody assassinations, Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor is at once a blackly comic film about greed and a gloomily philosophical meditation on death.
Michael Fassbender is on suave form as the Counsellor of the title, a well-dressed lawyer who dabbles in drug running to help pay for his lavish lifestyle and the hugely expensive diamond he’s just purchased for the new love of his life, Laura (Penelope Cruz). But even as the Counsellor sweeps Laura off her feet with that sparkly new rock, his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem, with stunning hair as usual) warns of the potential consequences.
Quietly overseeing everything, there’s Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s manipulative, cheetah-owning girlfriend whose love of fast cars extends to performing bizarre ‘gymnastic’ displays on them (seriously, one particular scene has to be seen to be believed). And when a young man loosely connected to the Counsellor is killed and a huge consignment of drugs stolen, he ends up on the wrong side of one of Mexico’s most ruthless drug cartels.
There are certain common elements between The Counsellor and the hit series Breaking Bad, over and above the obvious drug trade theme. Fassbender’s essentially a Walter White with a gold watch, a slick talker who gets into an unseemly trade without realising just how deep the rabbit warren goes. If there were occasions in Vince Gilligan’s series that felt a bit like a cautionary tale about the consequences of crime, the McCarthy’s script is like an adult Struwwelpeter; we’re shown all the luxury that being near the top of the drug trade can buy, but we’re also shown, in no uncertain terms, what the pitfalls can be for those involved.
As you’d expect from a Ridley Scott film, The Counsellor looks as sharp and well cut as one of the title character’s suits, with clean, glossy cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (who made last year’s Prometheus look so luminous in its best moments). There’s a real sense that Scott relishes the set-pieces in McCarthy’s script, too, with some moments of violence that have real impact.
Anyone who’s read books like Blood Meridian or No Country For Old Men will know how searing and methodical McCarthy’s descriptions of violence can be, and Scott translates these perfectly; one piece of killer machinery is straight out of Dario Argento’s Trauma, and its effects are shudder-inducing.
McCarthy’s dialogue is dry, laced with humour and rich with philosophical notions. Scott and McCarthy’s combined clout has also afforded them a cast of giving these words a real zing of truth – Brad Pitt shows up as a southern drug dealer type in a Stetson, and Javier Bardem is clearly enjoying himself as an unspeakably rich and very dodgy businessman.
Frustratingly, The Counsellor tends to plod and meander rather than build. It’s worth comparing the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men, which managed to translate McCarthy’s salty prose while also punctuating the dialogue with scenes of dramatic silence and an overarching air of rising suspense.
The verbosity in McCarthy’s script for The Counsellor reaches comic proportions at times – even a coffee shop proprietor gets a lengthy monologue on the nature of death – which might suggest that the great novelist’s work is better adapted for the screen by somebody else. It could also be argued that the characters surrounding Fassbender’s Counsellor are more compelling than he is, and that the plot gives him little to do other than act as a sounding board for McCarthy’s beautifully written speeches.
These are major flaws for sure, but The Counsellor is by no means a failure. Cameron Diaz proves to be heartlessly entertaining as a woman willing to do anything to get what she wants, and the juxtaposition of all the mansions and wealth with manipulation and murder is the point, perhaps, of McCarthy’s story – in order for a few to be wealthy, a lot of other people have to suffer.
Not everyone will get on with its lengthy scenes of dialogue and languid pace, but there’s little doubt that The Counsellor’s also one of the more unusual films we’ve seen from Scott in some time, and in terms of acting, possibly one of his best in years.
Harsh yet full of McCarthy’s bitter poetry, The Counsellor’s lasting message may well be: if you can’t afford to lose, it’s probably better not to play the game at all.
The Counsellor is out on the 15th November in UK cinemas.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.