(Ridley Scott, 2013)
Just like No Country For Old Men, the last dark Tex-Mex thriller written by Cormac McCarthy, The Counsellor is plotted like a boilerplate action thriller from the late 80s. Double-crosses, shady middle-men, emotionless contract killers stalk this neo-Western landscape, mingling with the "normal" people foregrounded by the story.
In this case Michael Fassbender plays the titular (nameless) hero, investing in a massive drug shipment from Colombia via the Mexican cartels alongside his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). But Reiner's mysterious girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is making her own moves, which result in the wrath of the cartels descending on everybody. Suddenly the Counselor, always so self-assured, is desperately trying to survive and protect the woman he loves, the innocent Laura (Penelope Cruz). But the cartels are an inescapable evil, and nobody gets out of this story clean.
McCarthy's theme is the existence of evil, our relationship with and perception of it, the way it can seem unreal until it lands in our lives in a splatter of blood, implacable and unyielding, and nothing we care about means anything any longer, and Scott does that theme justice, and then some.
As such, this is a pitch black nightmare of a film, dressed up in designer threads, full of beautiful cars and magnificent houses and its starry cast, but keening a mournful, insidious death-song under its breath. As the cartels - drawn out by a coincidence after the Counselor performs a simple favour for the son of a client, a rather unsubtle statement on the nature of chance in the cosmos - close in, McCarthy's thesis becomes obvious. Evil is real, inescapable, utterly corrupting. There is no escape, no bargaining, no heroic rescue or confrontation.
The journey taken by Fassbender's character is dreadful, his fate devastating, and the actor - always so committed - makes us feel every step of his descent until he is choked by his own despair. Early on he is rather the straight man, moving from one long, metaphor-laden conversation with a colourful supporting character (the likes of Bruno Ganz and Toby Kebell each take a scene) to another as McCarthy nudges at his themes and suggests ideas. Later on, it becomes clear that this is the film, its story mainly told in long dialogue scenes wherein people philosophise and Fassbender tries to keep up.
All the while Ridley Scott keeps it looking slick and occasionally stunning, capturing the outskirts of Santa Fe with a dusty grittiness and finding his characters swimming in their excess and glamour. The actors make McCarthy's often baroque, overwritten dialogue work. Pitt and Bardem do especially well with their monologues, and only Diaz slips at all, her Malkina a touch one-noted and cartoonish.
But then as written she is a very pulp character, the uber-capable femme fatale, the whore to Cruz's Laura, very much the flawless Madonna; and I think it would take an extremely strong actress at the peak of her powers to bring such a creation convincingly to life.
For all its thematic baggage, this is still a thriller, and Scott throws in a couple of thrilling action scenes to buoy up the talkier passages. But it is the talky passages, direct from McCarthy's script, that really stick. Two days later this film is still with me. That would be recommendation enough, but this is a superb film; provocative, fascinating and powerful, beautifully made and with its own ideas.