The Counselor: A Disappointing Masterpiece

ThecounselorThere is not an author, living or dead, whose work I enjoy more than Cormac McCarthy‘s, so when I first saw the trailer for The Counselor, I decided to stave off suicide for a few months until I saw the film.  Regretfully, the film was disappointing (don’t worry, I’m still staving off suicide in anticipation of the release of 12 Years a Slave in Windsor).  Movie troll ‘reviewer’ Andrew O’Hehir went so far as to claim that it was the worst movie ever made.  This is an extremely unfair (and unsupported) analysis.  Though the movie was not as entertaining as No Country For Old Men (both movies were narratives written by Cormac McCarthy), it is not without its merits.  O’Hehir’s ramblings ‘review’ does not reflect the quality of the work on the screen, but rather, a lack of insight on O’Hehir’s part, coupled with his need to post polarizing titles with the hopes of garnering some clicks and, in turn, impressions for Salon.


Penelope Cruz, who stars as Laura in 'The Counselor'.

Penelope Cruz, who stars as Laura in ‘The Counselor’.

The film starts off with a brilliant scene between two lovers.  They are both obscured by sheets. All we hear are their words.  We are invited to identify with these lovers, not based on their corporal appearance, but rather on the words of love they share with each other.  In a world where many people, whether consciously or not, judge others based on appearance, The Counselor removes appearance from the equation.  We do not know if these voices are thin, or heavy, white or black, male or female.  It is love.  O’Hehir suggests that this scene “urges us to walk out and do something else instead”.  In this assertion O’Hehir uses the trick of the personal pronoun “us” to encourage the reader to adopt his view, but in truth, it is not “us” that O’Hehir speaks of, but himself.  Is it the movie encouraging him to leave, or is it his lack of  appreciation for what is going on?



McCarthy's love scene seems to share ideals regarding love with poets like John Donne.

McCarthy’s love scene seems to share ideals regarding love with poets like John Donne.

The scene, far from encouraging me to leave, reminded me of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’, where the marriage of minds is uplifted over the marriage of  bodies.  Such ideals are reinforced in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, where sublunary love is presented as inferior to superlunary love.  Indeed, just as Donne speaks about the bodies being melted together like gold and glorifying “two souls… which are one”, the two lovers in the opening of  this movie  are amalgamated into one body: one moving form united under the sheets.  Conversations such as theirs recall Milton’s ‘Doctrine on the Discipline of Divorce’ , where the corporeal is secondary to the emotive, spiritual and intellectual connections.  McCarthy is invoking this idea, and he is placing it in a contemporary conversation, expanding it to include intercultural relationships.


Michale Fassbender as 'The Counselor'.

Michale Fassbender as ‘The Counselor’.

O’Hehir claims that the film doesn’t even “talk about sex” (not that a film needs to do this to be good), but this is not true, and it is one of the most important aspects of the film.   One scene features a conversation taking place between the title character, (Michael Fassbender), and Laura (Penelope Cruz) amidst love making .  In it, the counselor asks Laura what she wants him to do.  In the context of ‘rape culture’ conversations, this scene is immensely empowering.  In it, a privileged male figure, who clearly has consent from the woman he is in bed with, refuses to rely on the ambiguity of body language before initiating the sex act.  He asks Laura what she wants.  When she gives an ambiguous answer, he waits until she provides the clarity that makes consent overt.  It is not until then that he engages in a sex act with her.


Cameron Diaz may not have been the best casting choice for Malkina.  Scarlett Johansson may have been better suited for the role.

Cameron Diaz may not have been the best casting choice for Malkina. Scarlett Johansson may have been better suited for the role.

The theme of sex recurs throughout the film.  Oscar Wilde was accredited with saying: “Everything is about sex, except sex.  Sex is about power.”  With this in mind, McCarthy constructs a scene where Malkina (Cameron Diaz) has sex with a car.  Yes, Cameron Diaz has sex with a car (on a side note, O’Hehir seems to think the car was a ‘corvette’, but it was actually a Ferrari).  This scene works on two levels.  In one sense, Malkina is asserting her power over wealth.  Her partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem), is wealthy and the car is a manifestation of that wealth.  Malkina’s sex act with the car, then, is asserting her power over Reiner’s wealth.  Reiner’s wealth, for Reiner, is a means to sex.  For Melkina, the sex act asserts her power over that wealth, reinforcing Wilde’s assessment on sex and power.  It also demonstrate her own autonomy as she is capable of obtaining sexual gratification on her own.  This is a foreshadowing of sorts for the character.


Javier Bardem, star of 'The Counselor'.

Javier Bardem, star of ‘The Counselor’.

The movie is, at its core, about choices and about being the author of one’s own fate.  It is about the title character being warned about the nature of the business relationship he is about to engage in.  It is made clear that once  involved with the cartel, he will forgo consent and accept all potential outcomes, even if that involves unfair punishment.  The counselor is warned by both Reiner and Westray (Brad Pitt) about the dangers involved.  He moves forward and eventually must deal with the consequences.  This culminates with a scene where the counselor is the recipient of a masterful lecture from an enigmatic character named Jefe (Ruben Blades) on the practical limits of existentialism. Then, he is shown the uselessness of metaphysical debate.  One is reminded of the Socratic dialogue, only rather than the peripatetic approach, the counselor is sitting in a sedentary position, contrasting such philosophical conversations and he is met with the practical application of such philosophies in the physical world.  It is a great piece of dialogue that brutally juxtaposes the ideals of philosophy with the reality of life.  To O’Hehir, who attacks the movie tactlessly and without much analysis, it means no more than: “sorry dude, you’re screwed”.  It is no wonder that O’Hehir didn’t enjoy the scene; its purpose was entirely lost on him.


Brad Pitt was adequate in 'The Counselor', but the roles wasn't as well suited to Pitt's style as was 'Fight Club', nor did Pitt slide into the role as easily as he did to is role in 'Killing Them Softly'.

Brad Pitt was adequate in ‘The Counselor’, but the role wasn’t as well suited to Pitt’s style as was ‘Fight Club‘, nor did Pitt slide into the role as easily as he did to is role in ‘Killing Them Softly‘.

The idea of complicity comes into play early in the film when Westray asks the counselor if he has ever seen a snuff film.  He speaks of a friend who watched one and how that friend, in turn, became complicit in the murder through viewing it.  Later in the film, when the counselor receives a DVD, he declines to watch it, knowing what is on it beforehand and refusing to be complicit in its content.  It could be presumed that he is already complicit in the crimes featured on the DVD, but this would negate Laura’s independence.  In one scene at a polo club, we see an intimidating figure confront the counselor.  The counselor defuses the confrontation, but afterwards tells Laura that this “comes with the territory”.  This scene is crucial for demonstrating Laura’s own involvement  in the danger surrounding the counselor.  She knows that there are risks in being involved with the title character and chooses to stay with him, thereby accepting the risk.


Natalie Dormer, who was wonder in 'The Tudors', make a brief appearance as a con-artist with a conscience in 'The Counselor'.

Natalie Dormer, who was wonder in ‘The Tudors’, make a brief appearance as a con-artist with a conscience in ‘The Counselor’.

Inversely, one woman (Natalie Dormer) agrees to collect information for a theft, but upon payment she is informed that the theft alone is not the purpose of her investigation.  The woman refuses her payment because she does not want to be complicit in the crimes that were undisclosed to her.  The counselor, even if he did not know what might happen, did know about the potential dangers.  This woman though knew only that she was participating in a theft.  When the theft graduated to murder, she refused further participation, refusing to be complicit by accepting payment.


Cormac McCarthy, screenwriter of 'The Counselor'.

Cormac McCarthy, screenwriter of ‘The Counselor’.

One of the biggest problems with O’Hehir’s review is his attack on the screenplay.  He criticizes McCarthy’s writing, whilst ironically demonstrating his own inability to write, making it clear that he is not qualified to determine what great writing is.  He claims McCarthy’s writing is “worse” than the book of Job without the drama.   He then says: “Way worse writing” and followed this with a semicolon.  Semicolons, of course, are only supposed to be used after an independent clause.  “Way worse writing” is not an independent clause.  And describing it as “Way worse”?  ‘Way’?  There a lack of clarity in that word.  ‘Way’ does not tell the reader anything.  A great writer would be able to communicate degrees of difference with a more articulate word than ‘way’.  Coupled with this, O’Hehir starts a couple of sentences with ‘but’.  I don’t normally embrace prescribed grammar rules, but doing this more than once in a short article? That seems questionable.  The use of hyperbole like “bajillion dollars” just seems excessive and misleading.  This film did not come across as a film with the highest budget of all time, so such language serves no real purpose and only illustrates O’Hehir’s lack of communicating such things.  I have my own limits when writing, which I recognize.  I need to spend more time proofreading (as I’m sure you will notice at some point when reading this), but I would not attack a work as loaded with content as The Counselor is without having a full understanding of the intent of the work, which O’Hehir is clearly lacking.  O’Hehir’s writing is not awful, but it doesn’t demonstrate the kind of mastery of the English language that would give him the credibility needed to dismiss the work of a writer as engaging as McCarthy.  This speaks strictly to his writing of course.  His lack of analysis is what really invalidates him as a critic because he is so clearly lacking an understanding of how the key dialogue works in this film.



'No Country For Old Men' made brought McCarthy's prosaic genius to life.

‘No Country For Old Men’ made brought McCarthy’s prosaic genius to life.

I cannot claim to be as satisfied with this film as I was with No Country For Old Men (also starring Bardem), but when compared to other films based on McCarthy’s work, this film does stand up.  All The Pretty Horses (also starring Cruz) was more poorly executed, and The Road, though enjoyable, was not as engaging as the source text (though the cast was wonderful).  This film seems to have some deficiencies in terms of casting: Diaz has a limited range that does not extend to the role she was given, and Pitt, though effective, was not as stellar as other actors who have taken on roles in McCarthy films.  O’Hehir dismisses the film, suggesting that it is like a “mumblecore movie about a bunch of Sarah Lawrence philosophy majors, made by coked-up rich people for 100 bajillion dollars”.  O’Hehir juxtaposes a budget of ‘100 bajillion dollars’ with a mumblecore film, perhaps not realizing that mumblecore films are independent films made on extremely low budgets.  Mumblecore films are also, typically, horror films, which simply doesn’t fit here. The obvious and ineffective hyperbole (bajillion dollars?) demonstrates O’Hehir’s own deficiency in writing, while his critical response to philosophy majors seems to suggest that the movie is not bad because of a deficiency in content, but rather because it doesn’t appeal to base audiences.


Rosie Perez makes a brief appearance in 'The Counselor' and reminded me how much I miss her.

Rosie Perez makes a brief appearance in ‘The Counselor’ and reminded me how much I miss her.

I’m not sure if O’Hehir realizes this or not, but educated people like to go to the movies too.  There is nothing wrong with a great spaghetti western, and it is perhaps best when a writer or director can combine both the allure of a great action movie with postmodern themes, such as the Cohen brothers and McCarthy do with No Country For Old Men, but there is nothing wrong with a film that appeals strictly to the intellectual. I can freely admit that The Counselor would have been better read on the page, where the dialogue offered by the likes of Jefe and Westray could have been read and re-read before moving on; where their implications could have been contemplated before moving forward.  The work does not translate well to film, but it does translate effectively enough to make it a movie worth watching.  O’Hehir clams this is the worst movie ever made. If O’Hehir thinks a film of this quality is inferior to films like Gigli, Jack and Jill, John Carter, and Baby Geniuses (or any host of clearly inferior films), the he simply does not understand what good film making is about.  I mean, did O’Hehir ever see Cop and a 1/2? or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot?  I don’t believe that O’Hehir sincerely believes this.  I believe that O’Hehir was likely trying to generate traffic with a polarizing statement.  Either way, O’Hehir dilutes his own credibility with such a claim.  There is genius at work behind this piece; that much is clear.  It is not perfect, but it is a work worthy of watching and while it may not be in the conversation for best film of the year, it is certainly noteven  in the conversation for worst film currently playing at theaters (Escape Plan, or Runner Runner anyone?), much less being in the conversation for the worst film of all time.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. I wasn’t attacking the critic for the misplaced semicolon, I simply note that it is not fair for the critic to attack the writing quality when he doesn’t display a mastery of the language and offered that as one of several examples. My criticism of O’Hehir’s writing extend beyond a misplaced semicolon. The point of that is not to knock O’Hehir, but merely to point out that he is not in a position to be determining what ‘good’ writing is when he displays a lack of vocabulary by needing to use phrases like “way worse” and “bajillion”. In these instances, he frankly sounds like a 12-year-old. I wouldn’t have even mentioned it had O’Hehir himself not made a point of attacking another writer.

    As to your criticism of my typo (I do use ‘complicity’ properly earlier in the piece, so I do know what the word means and when to use it), it has been corrected (though the sentence still made sense with ‘complacent’, you are correct in your assumption that I meant ‘complicit’). To that, I would like you to note that I CLEARLY state in the review: “I have my own limits when writing, which I recognize. I need to spend more time proofreading (as I’m sure you will notice at some point when reading this), but I would not attack a work as loaded with content as The Counselor is without having a full understanding of the intent of the work, which O’Hehir is clearly lacking. O’Hehir’s writing is not awful, but it doesn’t demonstrate the kind of mastery of the English language that would give him the credibility needed to dismiss the work of a writer as engaging as McCarthy.” Your suggestion that my typo is a ‘tragedy’, suggests a degree of hyperbole akin to those used by O’Hehir. Rather than a tragedy, it is simply the product of an honest mistake and a lack of time. I work full time and do not always have the time to thoroughly edit. Sometimes, when I am typing homophones, such as complicit and complacent, I make the mistake of typing the wrong word. I do not have an editor to correct such mistakes and sometimes miss them. That does not negate everything else I said, but if that is an issue for you, I suggest you avoid returning to my site because you will find such mistakes in the future, until such time as I can afford to employ an editor like Salon can (they have no excuse for a misplaced semicolon).

    That said, it seems ironic that somebody who failed edit their own post would take the time to correct somebody else for a typo. By this, I refer to how you ironically attempted to be ironic by naming yourself ‘spekas English’. You clearly meant ‘Speaks English’, which I assume was meant to mock me for my typo, but in the process clearly demonstrated that you are not exactly speaking from a positions that suggests you are not in a position to judge such things. You final sentence is also not an independent clause and is therefore not a complete sentence.

    Also, I typically do not approve messages from people who feel the need to hide behind the anonymity of the internet. It seems you lack the courage to attach your real name to your comment. Is there a reason for this?

    Thank you for taking the time to respond.

  2. Was really disturbed/intrigued/impressed by some of the choices made in this movie.

    Great review, and good work holding other critics accountable for not doing their homework!

    It’s really disrespectful to the people whose work you’re reviewing if you don’t take the time to at least make sure you have a good understanding of the material.

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