This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: ‘The Counselor’
For a violent movie about the drug trade along the Mexican border, "The Counselor" is mighty chatty. For long stretches of time, in between routinely effective action scenes, the characters philosophize about life and fate and matters of the heart, not goofily like Truffaut's affable thugs in "Shoot the Piano Player" or focused on trivia like the miscreants in any number of Quentin Tarantino movies, but seriously and to the point.
Characters even quote -- without acknowledgement -- William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and Lord knows who else.
The result is a fairly entertaining but overlong and talky crime movie that is not in the same league with the movie it will inevitably be compared to, "No Country for Old Men." (That Coen brothers film about unspeakable violence along the border was based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the screenplay for "The Counselor.")
In "The Counselor," at least four characters, none of them exactly Oxford dons, dwell at length on the theme of the movie: the irrevocability of existential choice. The protagonist, an El Paso lawyer known to us only as the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), has chosen to get involved in a major drug deal, and he is warned time and time again that the path of sin he has started to go down may inexorably lead to catastrophe, to punishment without the chance of redemption. Unimaginable punishment.
As a friendly drug-trade middle man named Westray (Brad Pitt) warns, "The point is, Counselor, you may think there are things that these people would simply be incapable of. There are not."
"These people" are shadowy members of the drug cartel, and the Counselor has made the mistake of entering their world, where the rules of civilized society (and the courts of law) do not apply. Beheadings are a favorite method of solving personnel problems.
The Counselor gets essentially the same warning from his friend Reiner, an engagingly flamboyant, spike-haired, drug-dealing nightclub owner played with zest by Javier Bardem. Reiner is smart about everything except his girlfriend Malkina, who is as sleek and bloodthirsty and relentless as the brace of cheetahs she keeps as pets. Keep your eye on Malkina -- not just because she turns out to be a central character, but because Cameron Diaz, in a superb performance, gives her such feline spookiness.
Malkina, one might say, is Reiner's tragic flaw.
Despite the copious warnings to stay out of the drug game, the Counselor, seduced by his greed and his arrogance, insists he will make one deal, and then retire to a life of leisure. It's hard to empathize with the Counselor, which weakens the emotional thrust of the movie. As played by Fassbender, and despite an erotic opening scene in which he seems totally and unselfishly committed to providing sexual pleasure to his fiancée (Penelope Cruz), he seems pretty much a cold fish. He comes across as a stiff-necked lawyer in a $3,000 suit who gets overwhelmed by his own greedy desire for the best things in life, including said fiancée, who herself seems partial to the good life. He's not the sort of protagonist you can care much about, and the movie as a whole is strangely uninvolving.
The plot involves millions of dollars in drugs that are being transported north in a truckload of sewage. The problems come when it is highjacked by a rival drug gang, and the Counselor is suspected of complicity in the highjacking. He's on a road to nowhere.
The story is a classic tragic narrative -- an otherwise good man makes one bad choice, and is doomed despite all his attempts to make things right. If you miss the point, the movie will explain it to you, more than once. McCormac and director Ridley Scott have made what might be called a classic mistake, if not quite a tragic one -- they ignore a bedrock rule of filmmaking, which is that it is better to show than to tell.
Aretha Franklin did not cut her timeless, genre-changing rendition of "Respect" in her hometown of Detroit, or in the New York headquarters of Atlantic Records, as you might suspect, but in a ramshackle studio in the Tennessee River town of Muscle Shoals, pop. 11,000. And the backup was provided by local musicians, many of them white men who had grown up playing country music. The same is true of Wilson Pickett and "Mustang Sally" and dozens of other popular soul recordings, not to mention such rock classics as "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones and "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, among many. And, believe it or not, reggae singer Jimmy Cliff's "Sitting in Limbo."
Filmmaker Greg "Freddy" Camalier dug deep into the remarkably fertile musical soil of this river town to show that it rivaled Memphis as a recording center that brought blacks and whites together to help create soul music and what eventually became Southern Rock. (One of the backup guitarists at the Fame studio in Muscle Shoals was Duane Allman, and you can hear him on recordings with both Franklin and Pickett, as well as, of course, the Allman Brothers Band.)
When he is not celebrating some of the greatest music to come out of America in the second half of the 20th century, Camalier has his camera trained on Rick Hall, born in poverty, the son of a woman who became a country prostitute. A musical near-genius, he willed the Muscle Shoals recording business into existence, chose local musicians to back acts from all over, and kept the sessions going for days and days until everybody got it funky enough to suit his well-tuned ear.
The only problem with the movie, perhaps, is that Camalier sometimes spends too much film on dreamy shots of the countryside and of Rick Hall looking pensive in profile. But the music is glorious, and the story is fascinating and quintessentially American.