Can a movie be both a catastrophe and strangely compelling - maybe even, gasp, good - at the same time? It seems The Counselor is determined to find out. On the surface, this new Ridley Scott thriller, written by No Country for Old Men novelist Cormac McCarthy, is a narrative wipeout: a supposedly twisty-turny crime drama set along the border that isn't all that twisty or turny but is deeply convoluted, and at times howlingly insane. But it knows it makes no sense. In fact, it rubs our faces in it.
The movie opens with the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose name we never learn, and his lady love Laura (Penélope Cruz) in bed, making love. "Tell me something sexy," he says. "I want you to put your hands up my dress," she whispers. "But you're not wearing a dress." "What does that have to do with it?" Their exchange, shot in warm, intimate close-ups, feels both frivolous and portentous. After he does the deed, she sighs, "You've ruined me." She doesn't know how right she is. At any rate, a movie that begins with an extended sexual climax has got more than just Grishamite shenanigans on its mind.
And boy, does it. Nonsensical story lines aren't always movie-killers. The Big Sleep is a masterpiece, but neither director Howard Hawks nor author Raymond Chandler reportedly knew what the hell happened in it; the story took a backseat to the impressively hard-boiled dialogue, to the smoldering chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. The Counselor can't come near such heights, but it's got something similar going on. There's some kind of plot here, about a drug deal gone wrong and a shipment gone missing, but every scene turns on observations about life, death, women, violence. The movie forsakes story; instead, it's all emotional through-line and color. A visit to an Amsterdam jeweler becomes a discourse on how we seek imperfections in diamonds, as a way to "announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives." When the Counselor meets with his partner in crime, shady nightclub impresario Reiner (crazy hair aficionado Javier Bardem, sporting a Brian Grazer do), the conversation veers toward women and about how "you can do anything to them except bore them." When our hero later meets with Westray (Brad Pitt), a middleman in the drug business, they talk about how the world is all shit and the need to walk away from it. At one point, Ruben Blades shows up to tell us that "when you cease to exist, the world that you have created will also cease to exist." It's as if Cormac McCarthy isn't just the writer, but he's cast himself in every part, too.
Actually, that only applies to the men. The women are mostly saints or whores here. Laura is the good Catholic and angelic love object, and that opening scene between Cruz and Fassbender places the movie in the right context. He is desperately, foolishly, hopelessly in love with her, and everything he does is motivated by his all-consuming obsession to give her a good life. On the flipside, we've got Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner's exotic, scheming, cheetah-obsessed mistress, who lacks any sense of self-reflection or empathy. While Laura gets a loving, intimate fingering from a very present Fassbender, Malkina, in one flashback that we'll all be talking about for years, fucks a car as Bardem watches. (I'm not making this up; it's a scene you could insert into a South Park episode without any extra embellishments.) "You see something like that, it changes you," Reiner says, with a hint of disgust; nevertheless, he's smitten, too. I'd probably be more troubled by the film's treatment of women if it made any pretense to realism, but these are clearly just opposing forces inside the writer's head. And they have a certain power, too. The film never loses focus on the Counselor's love for Laura, and that carries us well through the story's senseless byways and alleyways.
So, what the hell do we make of this movie? I worry that The Counselor is a monster that we created. By "we," I mean not just critics, but all of us who ask that such movies be about more than just the ins and outs of their respective plots. How many times have I said things like, "The movie isn't really about [insert description of ostensible story line] but really about [insert grand philosophical subject here ... the way that men think of fear, or love, or yada yada yada]"? The Counselor calls our bluff, and delivers the subtext on a blood-soaked, star-studded platter. Still, it shows us things - obscene and hilarious, yes, but also just as often harrowing and unforgettable - we never thought we'd see. It's ridiculous, but it has a ragged nobility all its own.