The Councellor

Ridley Scott’s savage look into the cut-throat drug-running business may well be the most baffling, nigh-on infuriating mainstream film of the year. The Counsellor is an impressively stylish crime thriller boasting a cast stuffed with A-listers (Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt) that does everything it can to keep its audience at arms’ length. The first original screenplay from acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy, it is a script shrouded in uncertainty. Indeed, the opening scene where we join Fassbender and Cruz entangled under impossibly white sheets, feels like we are joining the story midway through. We are left to play catch up on the nature of the relationships between characters and the details of the master plan which could make or break our main protagonist.

Ambiguity is common in the works of McCarthy. The adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men was loaded with quiet, mysterious characters and confusing monologues and that was a multi-Oscar winning success. Here the ambivalence is its biggest strength, but also its weakness. The details of the drug deal are never fully revealed, instead the pay load changes hands frequently through ambushes and double-crosses like a deadly game of pass-the-parcel. It serves as a strong metaphor for the drug wars in that region; nameless foot soldiers carry out mindless killings for a faceless higher power. The vagueness of the motivations shows the nihilistic nature of the business; when things go wrong people die. That’s the way it is.

The parable comes at the sacrifice of a flowing narrative or emotional investment – this is a film in which Fassbender is on screen in almost every scene but is never afforded a first name, addressed only as Counsellor. It is not who you are, but what you do, that is important. The allegory is further undercut by McCarthy’s script, which at times feels like a first draft. The writer may have an ear for cryptic speeches, but struggles when it comes to romantic interactions. Scenes in which Fassbender and Cruz are together are banal and forced – it is rare to see such talented actors spit out such awkward dialogue. It is testament to the polarizing effect The Counsellor has. A nasty puzzle of a film that offers as many frustrations as it does rewards.

Michael Clancy