Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor opens with what initially appears to be a romantic image. Two lovers lie dormant in a bedroom, tenderly whispering to one another, their faces obscured by sheets. As the camera uncomfortably holds its gaze on the motionless figures, the couple slowly begin to resemble a pair of corpses, the white linen resting on top of them morphing into the kind of protective tarp you’d expect to find at a horrific crime scene.
One of these bodies belongs to the Counsellor (Michael Fassbender), a nameless criminal lawyer, and in just a few scenes he’ll propose to Laura (Penélope Cruz), the woman currently buried under the sheets next to him. The looming spectre of death felt in this chilling prologue will soon begin to haunt them for the rest of the movie; the result of a misguided decision the Counsellor makes to do business with the Mexican cartel through his drug dealer Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his business partner Westray (Brad Pitt). But for now, the lovers are completely fine. They are wrapped up in each other’s arms and nothing else in the world matters.
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Moments like this are scattered throughout The Counsellor, which seemed to possess all the trappings of a classic mid-budget crowdpleaser upon its release in 2013. It had a well-known director, a starry cast and a script by a literary giant that promised to shock just as much it did excite, and most were expecting a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. So when Scott’s final product was revealed instead to be a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy meditation on the intersection of greed, destiny and the rippling effects of violence, audience reaction was understandably mixed.
The Counsellor’s screenplay came courtesy of the late Cormac McCarthy, the revered American author behind such novels as No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian. The common criticism was that much like his books, McCarthy’s script was overly talky, with its actors regularly stuck in scenes reciting long-winded soliloquies on the nature of money, sex and death.
What many critical reviews overlooked at the time, however, is the way these monologues function in relation to the rest of the film. There are scenes of heart-pumping action, but Scott and McCarthy ensure the shootouts and car chases are over just as quickly as they began. Emphasis is instead given to the acts of violence themselves – a barbaric daytime assassination on the streets of London, a high-speed decapitation in the middle of the desert – and the traumatic effect of such brutality on the people who witness them.
The long stretches of dialogue don’t just serve as pensive ruminations, but cleverly constructed facades for people like the Counsellor and his associates to distance themselves from the savagery that comes from their greed. Reiner’s enigmatic mistress Malkina (Cameron Diaz) wants to sabotage the men and profit from the cartel deal herself – yet the most she ever does is make a few phone calls, electing to stay in the shadows. It’s her underlings who physically set events in motion, their carcasses left to rot on the side of the road as a show of thanks.
Scott is a formally gifted director who amplifies the best aspects of McCarthy’s script; the auteur visualising the way evil can hide behind the sheen of money by crafting striking physical locations through lavish digital photography and eccentric production design. This leads to memorable settings such as Reiner’s purple-walled cactus garden and the various opulent hotel rooms the Counsellor finds himself conducting business in; all places that suggest an air of harmlessness despite their sinister uses. Just like a fresh paint job on a sewage truck filled with drums of cocaine, characters in the film flaunt their wealth to cover the filth they leave behind.
But in a Cormac McCarthy story, everyone reaps what they sow. Nobody escapes the consequences of their actions – even if it means your loved ones end up as headless corpses dumped among a sea of garbage. “It’s all shit,” Westray ominously mutters to the Counsellor upon their first meeting. “It’s all shit.”
The Counsellor is streaming on Disney+. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here