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  • 18
  • Drama, Thriller
  • 2013
  • 117 mins

The Counsellor



Michael Fassbender's counsellor decides to get involved in a drug deal and instantly regrets it when he's dragged into the dangerous Cartel underworld.


One late scene in The Counsellor sees Breaking Bad star Dean Norris, playing a nameless criminal, enquire about the fate of an anonymous corpse that arrived in a barrel on the back of the truck that delivered his shipment of drugs. “So what happens to the body?” he asks the driver. “Nothing,” comes the callous reply. “It just goes back on the truck.” There's no end game for this poor soul, no last stop, just eternal transit. It is the perfect summation of author Cormac McCarthy's first story written for the screen: The Counsellor is frustratingly directionless and unconcerned with detail, but fans of the writer will feel right at home wallowing through fresh reams of his trademark bleak prose. To sit and stew in McCarthy's world is an acquired taste, but don't expect a final destination.

Perhaps comparisons with the adaptation of McCarthy's No Country For Old Men do The Counsellor a disservice; certainly on the surface, the tale of an average guy drawn into the sinister criminal underbelly bears several similarities with the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning masterpiece. But while Ridley Scott is just as capable of doing the screenwriter justice and Michael Fassbender is a believable lead, it is McCarthy himself who seems to be on autopilot, refusing to tread new ground with a plot that flits between the same old archetypes: handsome heroes, helpless love interests, charismatic criminals and stone-cold killers. Perhaps The Counsellor's biggest failing is that Fassbender's nameless protagonist makes a conscious decision to enter the world of crime, whereas No Country's Llewelyn Moss made a snap judgement: crucially, there is no one here with whom your sympathies lie, no one to truly invest in.

McCarthy pontificates endlessly on the concepts of choices and crossroads and consequences, happy to slow the action down to a crawl to enjoy his cast purring his own words back to him. With a lesser cast this would surely drag, but The Counsellor excels in that department at least: Fassbender brings cockiness and vulnerability to his role, particularly when the vice begins to tighten, while Javier Bardem is one hundred times removed from Anton Chigurh as Reiner, a loud-trousered, big-haired drug dealer who acts as the titular counsellor's gateway into the world of crime. Brad Pitt continues his recent line in supporting characters who are more interesting than they have any right to be, but quite frankly all are overshadowed by Cameron Diaz's vixen Malkina, a tattooed, gold-toothed femme fatale dressed by Lady Gaga with the sleaze of a Roger Moore Bond villain. All credit to Diaz for trying something different, but in her hands, the role becomes a tad comical: Scott's reported first choice of Angelina Jolie makes more sense in retrospect.

McCarthy crams his screenplay with several of these colourful, single-serving characters, but as evidenced by the unabridged screenplay he handed over to Ridley Scott, the director had his work cut out to fashion the sprawling script it into a cohesive feature – the necessary languid pace shows up the script's lack of zip. Perhaps over time McCarthy will streamline his work to better suit the big screen; perhaps he doesn't care. Either way, The Counsellor is a fascinating, flawed film, rich with character and profundity but light on plot and relentless in its misery. Textbook Cormac McCarthy, in other words.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Screen Writer: Cormac McCarthy
  • Producer: Steven Schwartz, Ridley Scott, Paula Mae Schwartz, Nick Wechsler
  • Photographer: Dariusz Wolski
  • Composer: Daniel Pemberton

In a nutshell

The combination of McCarthy, Scott and Fassbender fails to ignite, but The Counsellor is far from the flop US critics made it out to be. Dark, dialogue-heavy and unapologetically adult, just don't expect No Country For Young Men.

by Ali Gray

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