Cormac McCarthy will never be an Optimist Club speaker. His 10 novels gleam dully, pastiches of sometimes primeval, almost casual violence and loss, usually of the death variety, leavened only by the lonely dignity and humanity of an occasional wayfarer on this blighted highway.
His books have been turned into memorable movies, like The Road and All the Pretty Horses, and even great movies, like the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.
Now comes The Counselor, from Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay. Picking up in the spirit of No Country for Old Men, which was a brutal morality tale of a big-time dope deal gone wrong and the deadly repercussions to all involved, The Counselor is the story of a slick-ass dope lawyer, played with increasing desperation and terror by Michael Fassbender, who gets in way, way over his head — with no life preserver — in a $20 million dope deal that goes all the way sideways.
Big dope deals are pretty much like regular business: When everything goes right, everybody takes their profit and is happy. The difference is that when things go wrong in the dope world, they don't call in the lawyers; they call in the killers: hard men, efficient, anonymous, deadly experts. Sort of Big Dope's inhuman resources department.
McCarthy is our Balzac of dope. While No Country was working-class-cowboy Big Dope, The Counselor is high-end Big Dope, ostentatious as all get-out: cribs out of Architectural Digest, seven-star restaurants, and runway chic in some of the outfits strutted by Cameron Diaz, a true Dragon Lady of Dope.
There was in No Country always a sense of dark inevitability. Javier Bardem's killer, bad haircut and all, was too driven, too possessed by his own twisted code of killer honor for any mortal man to escape. He killed them all. Women, too.
Hubris and greed
In The Counselor, Bardem is a spiky-haired dope entrepreneur who tells lawyer Fassbender from jump that this whole deal might not be a good idea for a naïf like him. “My back's to the wall, man,” Fassbender says, and jumps right in.
Shit, everybody, in rather cheeky, offhand fashion, tells the Counselor, as everybody calls him, that he should think twice about crossing over to the dark side. Brad Pitt, long-haired and ten-galloned, a Big Dope middleman, even tells him of the latest in killer tech: an automatic garrote that cuts your jugular and bleeds you out in about a minute. Guess who gets whacked that way? If you ever wanted to see Brad Pitt bleed to death like he had a busted radiator hose, look no further than The Counselor. (Pitt is really good at playing shady guys who see the Big Picture. His hit man in Killing Them Softly was all friendly menace and ironic special knowledge.)
Cormac McCarthy movies get the first-team, all-star Hollywood treatment. The fabulous Coen brothers were behind Old Country, and, besides Bardem's Oscar-winning turn, the estimable Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin were perfectly cast there. Ridley Scott, of Blade Runner renown, is at the helm of The Counselor. The stellar supporting cast features Penélope Cruz as the Counselor's clueless girlfriend, who ends up headless in a landfill, and Rubén Blades as Mr. Big Dope himself, quoting the poetry of Antonio Machado as he tells the abject, pleading Counselor that he's out there all by himself in a blasted, sunny Southwest landscape of eminent pain and death. Rosie Perez and John Leguizamo make impressive cameo appearances, as well.
The last we see of the Counselor, he is staggering, filthy and terrified, through a back alley in Cuidad Juarez, that Mexican hellhole of machinados and hundreds of murdered young women, a fitting place for his appointment with oblivion.
The Counselor is an obvious cautionary tale of hubris and greed, but it is also high-grade entertainment, fascinating, intriguing, the closest most of us will ever come to a walk on the wild side. Good thing, too, judging by the body count.