Cormac McCarthy/Ridley Scott's "The Counselor": No Country for Old Men II, or No Country For Anyone in Love With Penelope Cruz, Either

So on its first weekend in my neck of the woods, I caught Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor, with the screenplay being by none other than the great Cormac McCarthy, finest novelist of our times: It was a, um, horrible experience. Not for the faint of heart, as they say. The ending is a gut-wrenching kicker. A shocker, although you do see it coming. Not horrible as in bad or badly done, but horrible as in sheer horror. As I don’t like to give too much away when a film debuts like this, and be forced to inject the ol’ Spoiler Alert, I’ll try to keep my comments on the analytical-but-not-revealing level:
Cameron Diaz, who is not exactly one of my favorite actresses, actually does a knockout performance as the wicked vamp, Malkina. Watch out for her. McCarthy often has a character who embodies some kind of evil, and in this case it’s a woman, Diaz, which is a twist for him. It also probably has the most sex and sex-related talk than all of his novels (I know, this is a film, and maybe that’s why), though there’s some great sex-related moments in Suttree (1979). (I once titled a story “The Witch of Fuck,” from a line in Suttree, and the journal that published it leaned on me heavily to change the title, which I did, and which now appears in my new book of stories The Lousy Adult as “The Next Worst Thing,” published just this month.)
Javier Bardem is one of the kookier, more enjoyable characters, and he should have given more time on screen. Brad Pitt, another actor I’m not thrilled with, does a great job as a hipster/cowboy drugworld entrepreneur, but you won’t like his final moments. Basically everything good in this world goes bad. Before I saw it I thought it sounded like No Country for Old Men II, and now that I’ve seen it, I think that’s fairly accurate. Michael Fassbender is good, but his character is somewhat limited. Greed does him in, but it’s also complicated by love: In his zeal to shower his love, Penelope Cruz, with a “cautionary diamond” (there’s a good scene at a diamond merchant’s office in Amsterdam), he gets in over his head, and gets involved with the wrong people. To say the least.
But The Counselor does raise an aesthetic question: Can a story be too horrible? I think the answer is Yes. My wife says I owe her one for taking her to a movie depicting such despicable behavior, and for its violence to women. I like Ridley Scott’s films, and I imagine this one will become notorious. For instance, at one point the story swerves to a discussion of “snuff films,” which is perhaps a definition of something too horrible to watch, and unfortunately, even though The Counselor is fiction, it’s tainted by that proximity to something as disgusting and sadistic as a “snuff film.”
My favorite part concerns another element of proximity: that of the nearness and elbow-rubbing of great wealth with great depravity. The diamond dealer is right is his soliloquy on “cautionary diamonds”: There are certain objects of desire, like a 3.5 carat diamond, that create entanglements you can’t comprehend, what people will do for money, or what great evil great amounts of money can encourage. Set in El Paso, Texas, with some tangential scenes in Juarez, Mexico, and London, The Counselor is a 21st century morality tale. A series of stylish interiors bought with dirty money (or so it’s implied by the film’s end) contrasts with the dry, bleak landscape, and combined, the images create a kind of frightening poetic backdrop. If you can stomach it, this is a film you have to see.

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