“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Jesus told us this, and in “The Counselor,” Reiner (Javier Bardem) tries to tell the criminal defense attorney known only as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) the very same thing. Of course, Reiner is speaking from the context of obviously having a grandiloquent set of possessions himself, including, it would seem, a sex-crazed girlfriend named Malkina (Cameron Diaz). But the irony of Reiner warning the Counselor that he’s in over his head is that Reiner himself was also, he just didn’t realize it until it was too late.
But the Counselor is determined to embark on his fateful greedy path. He claims “his back is against the wall.” We aren’t told exactly why that is; perhaps it has something to do with purchasing a magnificent Dutch diamond as an engagement ring for his gorgeous girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz), as if buying her affection will make her devotion stronger. She is indeed lovely to behold, but her concern over his sudden unexplained absences portends an ignominious end to their breathless new love.
The Counselor’s contact on the supply end, a drugstore cowboy named Westray (Brad Pitt), also warns of the necessity of having a rapid exit plan in place – but he’s not as smart as he thinks he is, either. Like an addicted poker player, he admits he’s already been in the game too long for his own good. But it’s just too fantastically tempting – turning a smuggled drug shipment worth thousands into a street value of millions. And the method is pretty impressive, too. A hazardous waste dump truck is custom-fitted with airtight drums of cocaine bricks, inside the waste tank sludge. If anybody demands proof that they’re carrying what they say they’re carrying, they just need to pull the release lever. As for accessing the purloined plunder, well, that requires a custom-made electrical modem that is magnificently portable: it can be independently transported inside the helmet of an anonymous motorcyclist.
Ah, but the best-laid plans of unrighteous men oft go awry. What if the motorcyclist can be identified and waylaid? If the truck itself is hijacked by fake cops? Now everybody involved in this ill-fated illegal shipment is somehow held accountable by the conscienceless cartel for the missing contents. And no, they won’t let you claim it’s not your fault. They will exact their pound of flesh because they don’t bother to bargain. That’s only for the weak.
Writer Cormac McCarthy (“No Country For Old Men”) is given to philosophical waxings by secondary characters like the attorney whom the Counselor attempts to negotiate with to no avail. Since almost everyone here is a victim of their own greed, as a viewer it’s very difficult to actually root for any of the characters, since none are exactly innocent. But rarely are so many main characters eliminated from the discussion of which will be the “last one standing.” McCarthy also displays more than a casual curiosity in religious significance as protagonists talk about confession. One actually visits a confessional, but the priest calmly refuses to hear the sins of anyone who is not Catholic. An ecclesiastical indictment wrapped in clerical garb?
“The Counselor” is slick and sensual, but also sobering and suffocating. At the end, you’ll want to come up for air and maybe some light and some gaiety – all profoundly absent in this border-noire tale of sexploitation.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.