This essay includes major spoilers for the film discussed.
Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is a film entirely dedicated to its writer, so much so that it transcends your typical cinematic narrative to become a visual novel fueled by the words of its characters more than any actions they actually make. It doesn’t matter how many steps each person takes in any direction, the thing that most determines their fate are the words they speak.
In some cases, that fate is an untimely death. For others, those words spell disaster of a different kind. And for one woman, fate provides a lucrative path; a surprising turn from writer Cormac McCarthy, whose female characters typically end up with the short end of the stick. What these differing fates reveal is that there are those who live to hunt and those who live to be hunted. Just as a cheetah takes down its prey, knowing full well from miles away how it will devour its small feast, the hunter in The Counselor (namely Cameron Diaz’s delightfully dark Malkina) always has full control of the situation. The audience, as well, always knows what’s coming. Not because of any particular bit of action, but from the unsubtle words that come from each and every character. And that’s where McCarthy seizes an opportunity that most authors-turned-screenwriters do not: he ditches any semblance of traditional Hollywood narrative for the sake of adapting his flowery prose to the cinematic form by aggressively creating character, momentum, and some semblance of a narrative almost entirely through dialogue.
The dark dialogue comes in whelming waves, and there isn’t ever a moment where the image on screen overpowers the words being spoken. Referring to writer Cormac McCarthy as a cynical man is no stretch of the word, considering his long-standing career of presenting the most miserable aspects of humanity. As his character Westray (Brad Pitt) says, “I’ve pretty much seen it all, Counselor. And it’s all shit.” That’s the writer in a nutshell, and so much of The Counselor is exactly about that. It’s a pure, unfiltered work, in which a man who understands the reality of the violent world he inhabits, can roam freely, creating a tale as cynical as he is.
That disdain comes to fruition in so many ways; monologue after monologue driving The Counselor from pure vitriol at times to pure comedy due to its sheer contempt for everyone in it. It’s plain and simply narration through dialogue, and when things are presented in such an unsubtle manner, it often provides baffling results. At times, the results can be perfectly imagined without a single image present on screen. Take, for instance, the film’s opening scene: Michael Fassbender and Penélope Cruz underneath the whitest bedsheets to exist on this planet, camera always either on their faces or covered by the claustrophobic sheet that continues to invade the screen. It’s not exactly the most provocative set of images you could show. Here, they’re delivering line after line of the kind of thing you’d expect to hear on a phone sex hotline. To quote:
LAURA: I want you to touch me.
COUNSELOR: You want me to touch you where?
LAURA: I want you to touch me down there.
COUNSELOR: You do?
LAURA: I really do.
COUNSELOR: Say it more sexy.
LAURA: I want you to touch me.
Makes you wonder if Cormac McCarthy drew inspiration from Susan Sarandon circa 1975, doesn’t it? Bad “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” joke aside, you can practically imagine the scene yourself, eyes closed, as the actors speak. As ridiculous and dumb as the lines read on paper, the inflection provided by the participating cast means everything to the film’s success. Every whisper, confession, and sigh of pleasure is part of why this scene is effective, and the fact that one could do away with the images and still retain the same effect is a testament to the strength of McCarthy’s script.
Of course, the abundant sensuality in place in The Counselor isn’t only to be found in its opening. As it is, that opening is probably its tamest scene, even though it features a man going down on a woman and enjoying it; something emphasized greatly in the tie-in script through the lines, “God. You have the most luscious pussy in all of Christendom. Did you know that?” However, diving into McCarthy’s aggressive use of narration requires moving onto one of the film’s least plot-oriented scenes, one that seems shamelessly inserted for little reason other than to astound. Setting up the scene here is useless, as the entire thing plays out word for word in Counselor and Reiner’s chat. Please, imagine the following scene in Bardem’s voice, with Cameron Diaz as the woman he is speaking of. If you have seen the film, and already know exactly what these images entail, maybe try on a Nic Cage, circa Wild at Heart, voiceover for the sake of realizing just how vivid and exchangeable this monologue is:
REINER: Anyway, this was a while back. Not that long. We’d been getting it on for a while and we came back one night—we were staying up at Cloudcroft. Mostly for that great stretch of road between Cloudcroft and Ruidoso. And we drove out on the golf course and parked and we’re sitting there talking and for no particular reason that I could see she lifts herself up and slides off her knickers and hands them to me and gets out of the car. I asked her what she was doing and she says: I’m going to fuck your car. Jesus. She tells me to leave the door open. Turns out she wants the domelight on. So she goes around and climbs up on the hood of the Ferrari and pulls her dress up around her waist and spreads herself across the windshield in front of me with no panties on. And she’s had this Brazilian wax job. And she begins to rub herself on the glass. Don’t even think I’m making this up. You can’t make this up. I mean, she was a dancer, right? In Argentina? She danced at the opera thing down there. I’ve seen the clippings. And she does this full split and starts rubbing herself up and down on the glass and she’s lying on the roof of the car and she leans down over the side to see if I’m watching. Like, no, I’m sitting there reading my e-mail. And she gestures at me to crank down the window and she leans in and kisses me. Upside down. And then she tells me that she’s going to come. And I thought, well, I’m losing my fucking mind. That’s what’s happening here. It was like one of those catfish things. One of those bottom feeders you see going up the side of the aquarium. Sucking its way up the glass? It was just. I don’t know. It was just … Hallucinatory. You see a thing like that, it changes you.
REINER: Tell me about it.
COUNSELOR: Did she?
REINER: Did she what?
COUNSELOR: Did she come?
REINER: Yeah. Sure. Then she just laid there. Spread out across the windshield. Finally she climbs down and comes around and gets in the car and shuts the door and I hand her her knickers and she puts them in her purse and she sort of looks at me. Like to see what I thought about that. What I thought about that? Jesus. I don’t know what I thought about that. I still don’t. It was too gynecological to be sexy. Almost. But mostly I was just fucking stunned.
This is all shown and told in a flashback, and does next to nothing for the plot, outside of establishing that Diaz’s character Malkina is on top of it all. Just after the described scene, Counselor actually questions the power that this woman has over Reiner, saying, “Do you think she knew the kind of effect this might have on a guy?” The other man answers bluntly, “Jesus, Counselor. Are you kidding? She knows everything.” And in that moment, the power dynamics of the film change greatly. Every ounce of dismissal that Reiner casually threw around with regards to the women who surround him — an obvious factor of the accusations of misogyny lobbed against the film — is given reasoning with the exchange taking place. He even adds, “Sometimes she scares the shit out of me. It’s like being in love with… easeful death.” A line like that is exactly how his dialogue predicts his own demise.
It’s interesting to see how the way McCarthy writes women in The Counselor goes hand in hand with his establishing of fate through dialogue. The writer works his female roles in the same manner that someone like Alfred Hitchcock did in his day, exploiting the Madonna-whore dichotomy for all it’s worth. The dynamic between Malkina and Cruz’s Laura is one such thing, but rather than keep the two apart for solely the men to see how strikingly different they are, the two women are constantly interacting. While Laura is always seen as the pure, barely understanding virgin, Malkina is always showing that she is the dominant figure; with her confessional scene arguably proving the strongest for building her character. Following Reiner and Counselor’s conversation about her is a scene where Malkina and Laura chat on the phone; with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and director Scott beautifully bathing the two women in shadows. Two lines in the scene ring truest to further showing how Malkina and Laura embody the Madonna-whore dichotomy: Laura saying, “I know you think my world naive, but is that so bad?” and Malkina’s “You should be careful what you wish for, Angel. You might not get it.” Reiner’s fear of the woman and that harsh bit of “advice” she gives Laura are tell-tale signs to everyone’s impending doom.
Of every fate coming to a close, there are two best alluded to by earlier dialogue: those of Laura and Westray. Early in the film, Counselor and Westray are having a conversation about the usual life and death and love that everybody talks about in The Counselor. Westray shamelessly mentions the death of young women during drug wars, saying that the people who kill these girls do it all for the pleasure of making snuff films. He even warns the other, “You’ll see, those will start turning up.” It is only in the very moment, after Laura is kidnapped, that one sees Counselor holding onto a little package with a disc simply labeled HOLA! that the cold realization comes flooding in. The camera never betrays the overwhelming emotion that Counselor is feeling, but the only reason we know that this little DVD has any meaning is because of the short exchange that came within a lengthy discussion long before. In the same manner, Westray’s death — accompanied by some beautifully gory visuals — was described by none other than Reiner in one of his many conversation with Counselor. To quote their discussions yet again:
REINER Yeah well. They have a real aversion to mixing business with pleasure. Do you know what a bolito is?
COUNSELOR No. A bolo is one of those skinny neckties. Or is it one of those things you throw.
REINER Yeah. In this case it’s a mechanical device. It has this small electric motor with this rather incredible compound gear that retrieves a steel cable. Battery-driven. The cable is made out of some unholy alloy, almost impossible to cut it, and it’s in a loop, and you come up behind the guy and drop it over his head and pull the free end of the cable tight and walk away. No one even sees you. Pulling the cable activates the motor and the noose starts to tighten and it continues to tighten until it goes to zero.
COUNSELOR It cuts the guy’s head off.
REINER It can.
COUNSELOR There’s nothing he can do.
COUNSELOR How long does it take?
REINER Three, four minutes. Five maybe. It depends on your collar size.
COUNSELOR You’re shitting me.
REINER Nope. Mostly wretched excess of course. It’s just that there’d be no easy way to turn the thing off. Or reason to. It just keeps running until the noose closes completely and then it self-destructs. Actually you’re probably dead in less than a minute.
COUNSELOR From strangulation.
REINER No. The wire cuts through the carotid arteries and sprays blood all over the spectators and then everybody goes home.
REINER Yeah, well.
REINER Yeah. Probably a play on words too. Boleto—with an e—is the spanish word for ticket. As in yours has just been punched.
Everybody’s ticket gets punched sooner or later, but this is one gruesome way to go. It’s actually rather surprising that Westray would go down in this manner instead of Reiner, who instead is shot down in cold blood. However, Reiner’s death in this manner is rather reflective of the way Raoul, his and Malkina’s pet leopard, would take down jackrabbits in the wild without an ounce of care.
In so many ways, Cormac McCarthy shows that he can dispose of people without batting an eyelash, taking every precaution to state exactly how they will be disposed of long before the time comes. Now, normally, such predictability would be something to frown upon, but there’s an art that comes to presenting something so unsubtly in the midst of so much waxing philosophical, and The Counselor shows a full mastery of such an art. It’s clear that McCarthy consciously utilizes a style of writing that, as fitting as it would seem in a novel or even a stage-play, comes off incredibly unnatural for something on screen. To some, the words can eventually become a sort of drone, as listening to some of the ramblings of these men could lead to clear disinterest in the audience. In that way, he leaves one in an uncomfortable place, never knowing whether or not to listen carefully to every word uttered for a hint of what’s to come. With the audience, and most of his characters, in the shadows, McCarthy has the freedom to reign over them and exact a vengeance upon any one he so wishes. In that way, one could argue that the author has placed himself into his own film through a character as near-omnipotent as Malkina. Both author and character move every one of their pawns into place, existing as the sole person who looks to reflect on a world that ceaselessly inflicts torment amongst one another. “I think perhaps you would have to be a woman to understand that,” she adds, and maybe McCarthy truly believes that.
In that same vein of thought, other lines of Malkina’s begin to play into the way we read McCarthy’s motives. “Perhaps you won’t agree, but nothing is crueler than a coward,” she states in the film’s very last scene. With that tiny bit of dialogue, one could claim that McCarthy’s intentions were never hidden behind any semblance of a veil. Evil isn’t nuanced, and neither is death. Those are the bold words of an author who knew that every one of his words could lead to the demise of this film, critically more so than monetarily. If nothing else, it’s a clear statement that hiding the true meaning of your film in the shadows through subtlety is something this man is against, and the slight of it is exactly what makes The Counselorsuch a fascinating experience.
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Cormac McCarthy; starring Cameron Diaz, Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Brad Pitt; 138 minutes.