Lawyers need to have a way with words – even if they are not litigators. But lawyers don’t always have to be verbose. In fact, well-chosen words often serve them far better than verbiage. As the legal mind in director Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” Michael Fassbender exercises great diction thanks to screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. But his colleagues are the ones who can’t seem to stop talking and telling horrific cautionary tales of their dealings with Mexican drug lords.
The thing with the many cautionary tales laid out by these dabblers in high crime is that the tales do not deter anyone involved in their particular deal. Perhaps it’s because they have no plans to disrupt the deal. But they know well enough that someone else could have such plans. Their stories are proof that the consequences of molesting a multimillion-dollar drug shipment are grisly. Yet Fassbender and his partners, a comically reckless Javier Bardem and a comically restless Brad Pitt, are willing to take the chance that things could go off the rails just to have a little more money in the grand scheme of things – even though none of them appear to be missing life’s basic luxuries. They are of the breed for which enough is never enough.
It’s a fine and familiar premise. It’s just that there’s so much discussion about it – all obviously set up to allow the audience to recognize the horrors that transpire when the deal inevitably goes wrong. But the audience is never really connected to the characters, so instead of a grand impact, the conclusions seem hollow. Lamentable and disgusting, but hollow. The words were wasted on the audience just as the warnings were wasted on the characters.
[SPOILER ALERT] When Fassbender listens to the kingpin give what is supposed to be some kind of philosophical justification for his barbarity during a phone call, Fassbender stays on the line in the misguided hope that there’s a chance he’ll get his life back. But he might as well have hung up on the old windbag as soon as the meandering platitudes began to flow. We know from all the speeches that preceded it that no mercy will be shown. Fassbender, who heard all those speeches, knows too, but clearly hope springs eternal.
This aspect of “The Counselor” is a good contrast to the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece “No Country for Old Men,” based on another Cormac McCarthy story. The tensions in “No Country for Old Men” arise from seeing the assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in his Oscar-winning role) go about his cold, calculating business against a “hero” who truly reaches the audience (played winningly by Josh Brolin). Sure, Chigurh gives an explanation of his logic, but it’s brief and unwavering. We gain much more from the characterizations and the inherent suspense in the chase. So by the time the assassin pays a visit to the lovely, unfortunate widow (the solid Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald) at the end of the film, we are deeply moved by his inhumanity, his sheer unfairness to her, especially knowing that in his twisted mind he is the definition of fair. And the consequences don’t feel hollow at all. They feel meaningful.