It’s a perilous act of choice to like The Counsellor. It seems at one moment the loopiest film on Earth, at the next a weird but treasurable exercise in tragic absurdism. You just have to commit and nail your name to the “yes” mast. As this Cormac McCarthy-scripted, Ridley Scott-directed film says, in one of its many prêt a porter proverbs: “You don’t know someone till you know what they want.” This pre-Christmas season I want – and with the blandness avalanche about to hit cinemas, I think we all do – a screen drama-thriller that goes for the jugular.
Michael Fassbender was never better than as the agonised lawyer of the title, rueing the day he joined destinies with crooks Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt (three subtly stonking contrasts in lethal shadiness) to finance the diamond ring he has bought fiancée Penélope Cruz.
As in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, people do fateful deeds and watch their lives unravel. Perhaps they do them in order to watch their lives unravel. Human beings are complex mechanisms: especially when played with vertical hair and gaudy-coloured shirts by Bardem, with a gold tooth and twin pet cheetahs by Diaz and with country-and-western suits and a sociopath’s smile by Pitt. Fassbender’s hero, the actor’s impassive Aku Aku profile increasingly stirred by anxiety’s currents, gets in too deep. First comes the destabilising undertow. (Hell is other cities – Amsterdam, London, Ciudad Real – to which he must keep jetting to meet his helper devils.) Then comes the drowning in a too-late self-awareness.
Scott’s tautly textured direction – tarnished bronze landscapes, staccato locale changes – enforces McCarthy’s pitilessness. We’re in a world of everyday cataclysm. There are graphic slayings, unfeeling but not unfelt, at least by us. (Almost every violent death is pre-warned. We get the Greek messenger speeches, as it were, before the events and not after.) The next scenes or seconds, there are vein-chilling choices of action by the hero. It’s a totally gripping film, once you allow it that first, fateful grasp of your emotions.