Still we are children.
Our toys change, but we never outgrow the need for them. Our desires are different, but we waddle after them like toddlers. We imagine ourselves sly and untouchable—the stars of our story, one that leads inexorably to a happy ending—but like children, we're always reaching for things we shouldn't.
We're bitten. We're burned. And sometimes we're grabbed and pulled and buried below. Because when children make mistakes, they learn from them, but as adults, some mistakes are forever.
If the Counselor is a child, he's a spoiled one. Mine, he says, collecting power and Bentleys and the admiration of women who swoon over his smile. Mine, he thinks as he rolls in bed with his beautiful girlfriend, Laura—a woman he's determined to marry. Mine, he tells himself as he looks over a monumental diamond for a planned engagement ring.
But the Counselor's finances don't stretch as far as his fingers. He finds himself in trouble—in need of lots of cash and fast. Few professions promise a swift windfall like the Counselor needs … but he knows some underground businessmen: Reiner, a nightclub owner and sometime drug lord; and Westray, a seedy but suave middleman. To pay off his ever-rising debt, the Counselor squeezes into a drug deal—just one, he tells himself. This one, and no more.
Reiner and Westray both try to dissuade the Counselor, telling him of drug-related beheadings and mutilations in Juarez. Those dirty dealings are just business, Westray says, part and parcel with the cutthroat enterprise the Counselor is angling toward. They'll "rip out your liver and feed it to your dog," Westray tells him.
But the Counselor cannot be swayed. His bank account won't allow it. Mine, he says, and commits to the deal. If everything goes right, it'll net him $20 million.
And if anything goes wrong? The Counselor can't think about that. Children often don't.
The Counselor is filled with mostly bad people doing really bad things. While there are some worthwhile themes at play here (like visceral evidence that the wages of sin is death, a topic we'll deal with more in the conclusion), it doesn't contain much that you specifically point to and say, That is the act of a hero. That is an admirable deed.
The most we can say is that the Counselor, for all his faults, does love Laura, and says when he proposes that "I intend to love you until the day that I die."
"Me first," Laura says.
Indeed, the Counselor loves her so much that he's willing to die for her. And he's also willing to live for her, for as someone tells him, "Dying is easy." And as we've learned from the news, the drug cartels can make life a far worse fate.
It's also nice, I suppose, that Reiner and Westray do try to warn the Counselor about the pickle (ahem, the pickling agent) that he's about to dive into.
Though her actions sometimes belie this, Laura is a woman of faith. "It's important to me," she tells her friend (and Reiner's girlfriend) Malkina, who derogatorily calls Laura a "church girl." Indeed, she's a Catholic and has asked the Counselor if they can be married in the Church. She worried a bit that a previous failed marriage might be an issue, but claims that the Church doesn't acknowledge previous marriages.
This might be a nod by screenwriter/Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) to the idea of true forgiveness being possible only in the confines of religion, and that only through faith are your sins to be cleansed. Laura tries to explain the concept of confession to Malkina, who later makes a show of going to church. "I just wanted to tell somebody what I've done, so I wanted to go to a professional," she tells the priest. The priest leaves the booth before hearing her confession, and no wonder: Malkina walks in like a human cattle prod, intending to poke and jolt the faithful inside.
Unlike Laura, Malkina has no discernible faith: She's a Darwinian-styled creature—moved only, it would seem, by the smooth, sultry hunt of a predator. Only the hunter, she says, has "purity of heart," and she's tattooed her back with cheetah spots. When asked whether she pines for someone she lost long ago, she says, "I think to miss something is to hope that it's coming back. But it's not coming back." She lives without conscience and thus without regrets.
Whatever McCarthy's trying to say about faith here, there's no question that religion is impotent in The Counselor. Laura is an all-too-innocent victim—a lamb in the mouth of Malkina's lion.
Numerous people, both in and outside the drug trade, wear conspicuous crosses around their necks. We see a billboard that reads, "Aye have faith." A woman wakes up suddenly, and eerily knows that her son has died. Someone quips that Jesus wasn't born in Mexico because it lacked "three wise men and a virgin."
When we first meet the Counselor and Laura, they're tangled up and covered with a sheet. He encourages her to talk dirty to him (the dialogue meant to reveal contrast between her relative, awkward "purity" and his insistent tug to the carnal). Then he performs oral sex on her, eliciting moans, movement and an obvious climax.
Reiner and Malkina, in flashback, are in his Ferrari when she announces she's going to have sex with the car. She hands her panties to Reiner, then climbs onto the windshield and rubs herself on it—so that he can see everything. (The camera observes her from above.) "It was too gynecological to be sexy," he says later, making comparisons to a bottom-feeding fish. We hear that Malkina's homeland of Barbados is a "steamy place of sexual abandon"—or was until she left.
Malkina strokes Laura's shoulder suggestively while the two are at a spa. (Towels cover their nakedness, save backs and the side of Malkina's breast.) And Reiner says he split with his previous girlfriend because she'd had more sexual relations with women than he.
A woman is paid to sleep with a guy to get information from him. A prisoner offers the Counselor oral sex (which he turns down). Malkina suggests to a priest that he must have a weird idea of female sexuality, given what he hears in the confessional all the time. Women wear bikinis and tight, cleavage-baring dresses.
The Counselor has, in some ways, the arc of a Shakespearian tragedy. Meaning that much of the movie is tension-building setup—to conclude in a late-act bloodbath.
A man is killed by a mechanical device that clamps around his neck and automatically tightens until it can tighten no more. The victim struggles against strangulation at first, but the machine's wire eventually cuts through his neck (spraying blood everywhere) and slices off his fingers. Another man, speeding on a motorcycle, has his head lopped off by a wire strung across the road. A guy gets shot first in the rump, then in the forehead. (Blood and gore is again visible.) A woman is knocked down and beaten before getting thrown into a car. At least three people are cut down in firefights, while several others hobble around on legs punctured with bullets.
We see a body bulldozed into a landfill. We see a corpse floating in a tub of fluid. A sewage tanker used to smuggle drugs is washed clean of blood. There's talk of a snuff film, and the Counselor is given a DVD he (and we) know contains images of a recent murder. We hear about the horrible atrocities that happen in Mexico, largely due to the drug trade. Some 3,000 people, we're told, have been murdered in Juarez alone.
Crude or Profane Language
About 25 f-words (some in song lyrics) and at least 15 s-words. Also: multiple uses of "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑y." Jesus' name is abused nearly 20 times, and God's is misused a half-dozen.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Someone smokes what appears to be a joint. Folks drink wine, beer, martinis, other cocktails and straight liquor. A guy asks for, and gets, cigarettes during a prison interview.
We see barrels full of drugs as they're being packed, unpacked and sampled. When someone tells the Counselor what he should think about while doing a "line," the Counselor tells him that he doesn't do drugs.
Other Negative Elements
As mentioned, drugs are smuggled in a truck that also carries raw sewage; we see the filth being pumped in, leak out and get mopped up (often by people with masks on but still grimacing).
As I was leaving the advance screening of The Counselor, another movie reviewer there told me that an alternate title could've been The Wages of Sin. Indeed, this Ridley Scott interpretation of a Cormac McCarthy screenplay does tell us, most definitively, that the sinful decisions we make can carry with them the most terrible of consequences.
And I find it interesting that one of the dealers here is named Westray … a not very common name that can easily be divided into two words: we stray.
The Counselor himself strays the most, risking everything for what he thinks is a one-time shot at financial solvency. Desperation often is the catalyst for our worst decisions: We make them because our choices seem so narrowed, so bleak. We make such choices because we feel we have no other direction to go. And yet that's not true, is it? The Counselor could've taken responsibility for his past mistakes. It would've been painful. And it would've been the right thing to do. But he, like we very often, doesn't do the right thing. He tries to hide his trouble—and instead finds a great deal more.
Pride and greed ultimately undo the Counselor, and he is not alone in paying for his sins. Reiner is brought down by sloth and gluttony, Westray by lust. The world of The Counselor does not forgive. It exacts payment and offers no change. As the Counselor is told near the end, "You're now at the crossing, and you want to choose. But there is no choosing. There is only accepting." His choice, the Counselor is told, was made weeks ago.
The consequences for choosing to watch The Counselor are not quite so grave, of course. Your loved ones will be in no immediate danger should you buy a ticket or two. Yet the choice here is not without its own set of effects, given the levels of disturbing violence, raw and profane language, and salacious sexual content.
Reiner himself was exposed to some of that sort of sexual content, and he tells the Counselor he would love to be able to unsee what he saw. But he doesn't have that option. None of us do, really. Our choices have consequences—even when they involve "just" seeing a movie.