With Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz in its crosshairs, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor has one of the year’s dream casts – but the star of the movie is Cormac McCarthy’s script.
The first screenplay written by the 80-year-old author of Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men and The Road is a one-way trip all the way down to the basement floor of hell, where good intentions count for nothing, innocence is no excuse, and there’s no car to take you back up. Fassbender’s character, a lawyer known only as “Counselor,” makes the choice to descend and gets stuck in the flames.
If there’s a cautionary flicker of hope here, it’s that you always have a choice. It’s not as if the Counselor, seeking to make a quick fortune on a big-score drug deal before marrying his beloved Laura (Cruz), isn’t warned about the inferno below. He is. Repeatedly. But he makes the choice anyway. The deal goes pear-shaped, the forces of unforgiving retribution gather, the blood tides rise, and our “hero” finds himself locked in a world that was his for the making.
At a particularly desperate intersection of circumstances, he turns to a character named Jefe (Ruben Blades) for a way out: “I would urge you to see the truth of your situation, Counselor,” he is told. “That is my advice. It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made.”
In this doomed flirtation with fate, a game of chance played against the coldest house of them all, the Counselor is joining a team of certified losers who will be familiar to anyone who’s read McCarthy – you’ll recognize the similarly suicidal chance taken by the fortune-finding protagonist of No Country – and anyone who’s visited the literary or cinematic terrain the author evokes: the scorched-earth world of crime fiction practised by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith, and the shadow-stricken world of film noir. In these traditions, the forces of darkness never have to recruit. They just sit patiently waiting for people to come knocking, which they always do.
It is the nature of people in these fictional worlds to do wrong: not because they are bad (though some are), or because they are stupid (though some are), or even because they are duped (though some are), but because it’s in people to damn themselves if the price is right. Call it Satan’s advantage: If God has to work to win people over to His side, the Devil just lets human nature take its course.
This is the bedrock existential presumption of the hard-boiled literary and film noir generic traditions in which McCarthy’s pen has been so deeply dipped, and The Counselor – which abounds with such poetically apt but realistically dubious lines as “The truth has no temperature” – plays as much like an oratorical encapsulation of the forms as a work within them.
This is why plot is at once essential and incidental. While some will inevitably find this story of a man hopping a downbound train overly familiar – and McCarthy has already been accused of simply rearranging the narrative furniture of No Country – that’s a bit like dismissing 12-bar blues as repetitive or bemoaning the unchanging diamond in baseball. It’s the sameness of form that’s the point here. The reason it’s so locked in place is because it speaks to something enduring in our character, to a truth of sorts that never burns itself out.
When the Counselor decides to import a truckload of dope from Mexico – which in McCarthy’s prose and much of American popular fiction’s, is a border as moral as it is geographical – he’s signing the devil’s contract in his own blood, and gambling his eternal soul on the chance that he, unlike any of his predecessors crowding against the very gates of the netherworld, will somehow get away clean. With fools for fuel, hell is always stoked.
The Counselor, in case this wasn’t clear yet, is a terrific movie: exquisitely performed, judiciously directed (even by the notoriously injudicious Ridley Scott), smart, funny and thoroughly entertaining. But it is also a work of supremely thoughtful literary and pop cultural self-regard. It not only offers a mesmerizing dramatized lecture in the history and ongoing vitality of the dark side of American storytelling, it can even seduce you into thinking you’re seeing it for the first time. It makes you forget that both you and the Counselor are equally under the spell of a dark delusion.