Cormac McCarthy’s spare, bleak, and very literary prose has made for some compelling cinema, most effectively in No Country for Old Men and The Road and the adaption of his play for an HBO movie, The Sunset Limited. In his first original screenplay, he shows his flair for dialog that is half gangster, half poetry, but he is still more writer than visual story-teller. He needs to learn to trust the audience. If you show something, you don’t have to tell it, and you certainly don’t have to tell it more than once. Some good ideas and some gorgeous talk get lost in an awkward, over-the-top, you’ve got to be kidding me mess. Other writers are better at adapting his ideas for film than he is.
Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a handsome lawyer with a lot of low-life clients and a gorgeous girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) who adores him. What he does not have is a name. We never hear him called anything but “counselor.” He does have — a very bad combination — a plan to get a lot of money very quickly, some friends and clients involved with some very bad people, and a wildly unrealistic notion that he can veer off of that path of what’s legal just one time and then get right back on. If you have any confusion about what happens next, check your ancient Greek dramas with the hashtag #hubris. Or, just listen to the loving description of a method of killing people from Reiner (Javier Bardem) that involves a wire noose that tightens inexorably around the neck. METAPHOR ALERT. Don’t even get me started on the diamond seller the counselor visits to buy an engagement ring, the one who explains that in the world of diamonds, what we look at are the imperfections, sells him a cautionary stone, and tells the counselor, “We will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.”
Renier also has a girlfriend named Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who not only MORE METAPHORS COMING loves to watch her pet cheetahs chase and devour jackrabbits but has cheetah-themed tattoos and eye make-up, a gold tooth, and an amber ring the size of a cheese sandwich. She also brings new meaning to the term “auto-erotica” in a crazynutsy scene narrated by Bardem that is literally over-the-top. Note: Diaz is very limber and has lovely long legs. “I asked her whether she had ever done anything like that before and she said she had done everything before,” Renier says, a little dazed. Also, the drug smuggling involves trucks carrying human waste and occasionally a dead human body. On the side, it says, “We pump it all!” Is it just me, or is that a METAPHOR, too? Did I mention Renier lives in a glass house?
Ridley Scott’s direction, the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, and outstanding performances keep the movie watchable, even when it isn’t working, until the literary pretentiousness overcomes it with a series of speeches near the end that tip the scales from poetic, and ironic to purplish and self-parodying. In small roles, Rosie Perez, Rubén Blades, and Natalie Dormer create vivid characters who evoke the work the counselor thought he could keep himself apart from and does not realize he has already been changed by. “If you think that, Counselor, that you can live in this world and not be a part of it, you are wrong,” Renier tells him.
McCarthy knows this is a world where the problem that brings you down is one that in normal world would be quickly explained and quickly forgiven. These people do not believe in explanations. “They’re a pragmatic lot. They don’t believe in coincidences. They’ve heard of them. They’ve just never seen one.” There are no second chances. And then, as Renier explains, “it’s not that you’re going down. It’s about what you’re taking down with you.”
I enjoyed the elliptical epigrams tossed around by the characters, especially Brad Pitt’s cowboy, a loner who has a bit more perspective than the others. “How bad a problem?” the counselor asks the cowboy. “I’d say pretty bad. Then multiply it by ten,” he answers. These are people who expect they are being listened to by law enforcement, so it makes sense that they would corkscrew their communications. And it was fun to see the actors having fun with their roles, especially Diaz, with her asymmetric hair, cut to a point that looks like it could etch metal, swanning into a church to try out this confession idea she had heard about. With all the flamboyance, though, the movie’s best moments are the quiet ones. Everything ends up turning on a decision that was not really a mistake. And the most terrifying moments are not the ones with spurting blood or automatic weapons. They are a quiet phone call and a simple, “Hola!”
Parents should know that this film is an extremely violent crime drama with very disturbing and graphic images including decapitation. Many characters injured and brutally killed. It includes guns, crashes, drug dealing, drinking, smoking, very explicit sexual references and situations, and very strong and crude language.
Family discussion: Who suffered the most? Why do we never learn the counselor’s name?