The Counselor - Ridley Scott - Javier Bardem - Cameron Diaz - cheetah - horse - car - trailer

The Counselor
2013, directed by Ridley Scott

The Counselor opens the same way as Hitchcock’s Psycho. A pan across a southwestern U.S. city leads into a bedroom window where a not-yet-married couple has been making love at around 2 p.m. In both movies a financially motivated crime leads to the savage murder of a woman. The difference in subject however is more telling than those superficial similarities. Psycho is about the social dangers of men with unresolved Oedipus complexes, embodying Freudian incest for dramatic effect in the person of a psychotic. The Counselor revolves around another kind of “psycho” more common in today’s parlance: the psychopath.

Both Psycho and The Counselor are made with an appropriate dose of righteous anger. As far back as the 1930s Hitchcock had laid much of the blame for society’s ills on the persistence of juvenile sexuality in adults, and Norman Bates is an extreme personification of that particular demon. Ridley Scott is not angry about the existence of psychopaths – people like Malkina and the drug lord will always be with us, and Hitchcock too was wise enough to know that, which is why he generally relegated them to supporting roles and focused on ordinary villains whose psychological flaws were avoidable. The anger in The Counselor, rather, is directed at the cowardice and corruption of ordinary people who enable the crimes of psychopaths.

The Counselor - Ridley Scott - Michael Fassbender - Amsterdam - canal

One more thing unites the two films. Each of them is a second attempt by its director to express himself after an earlier movie had failed to reach its audience. No one understood that Vertigo was about incest, and with Psycho Hitchcock was determined to make his point clear, with the cinematic equivalent of a cudgel if need be. No one would fail to see that Norman Bates was a sick mommy’s boy. The Counselor likewise picks up where Hannibal left off. Everyone had treated that film as an inferior sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, failing to see that it’s a damning statement about the fetishization of psychopaths so common to our culture. In Psycho, Hitchcock more or less gave up on his audience, indulging them with a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser and throwing out half of the subtlety of Vertigo. In The Counselor however, Scott doubles down on his audience, making an almost equally upsetting movie that’s no easier to grasp than Hannibal. This time at least he has an all-star cast, and nobody’s going to view it as a sequel to anything.

When The Counselor‘s unnamed title character goes to Amsterdam to buy the diamond whose steep price presumably drives him into the drug deal, the jeweler tells him it’s a “cautionary” diamond. That word is reinforced in an exchange between the Counselor and Westray, who calls “cautionary” a “good word”. The movie too will be cautionary, doling out urgent advice, so that its title has a double meaning – or rather a single meaning, considering that the main character has never been known to give a word of sound advice to anybody.

The Counselor - Ridley Scott - Brad Pitt - Westray - newspaper - hotel - cowboy hat

The movie is certainly aware of that irony, because the Counselor is almost always on the receiving end of some advice. None of the advice he gets, however, is especially pertinent to us or brings us any closer to a lesson worthy of a movie. The jeweler in Amsterdam is a wise and humane old gentleman, but his chief advice is to buy the diamond. On Laura’s willingness to wear such a large gem, he says drolly that “She is probably more courageous than you imagine.” Reiner warns him that he’ll face unforeseen moral decisions, but once things come crashing down he doesn’t know what to advise his friend. Westray actually gives him good advice: “Don’t do it” – but his actions contradict his words. Malkina never tries to advise the Counselor, but the drug lord obliges him with a long thoughtful speech about the “crossing” he’s arrived at… all of which is nothing more than a florid way of saying, “You’ve made your bed, now sleep in it.” None of this advice can possibly speak for the movie unless we credit it so little that we believe it’s as uninformed as the jeweler, as helpless as Reiner, as flippant as Westray, or as smug as the drug lord.

Of course a good movie would not be likely to put its counsel directly into the mouth of a character, but when we hear Malkina’s speech at the end – “…nothing is crueler than a coward, and the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining” – our instincts surely tell us that it’s a speech to reckon with. We don’t need to admire Malkina to sense a truth in what she says. If nothing else it absolutely fits the word “cautionary” which the movie seems to have been preparing us for, and her reference to courage echoes the words of the jeweler. Ridley Scott’s movies always insist on the value of courage, and we have every reason to investigate what The Counselor says about it.

The Counselor - Ridley Scott - Michael Fassbender - Javier Bardem - Reiner - cactus - purple wall

The word “courage” stands in sharper relief if we notice that The Counselor reshuffles the elements of The Wizard of Oz. It’s built around three male characters: the Counselor, Reiner, and Westray, partners in a deal to ship 21,900 ounces of cocaine from Ciudad Juárez to Chicago. The Counselor is a loving fiancé brave enough to die “upon the wheel” for Laura, but his intelligence is repeatedly called into question. Reiner is a clever businessman who loves Malkina, but he’s terrified of her. Westray is smart and courageous but doesn’t love anyone. Together the three start to look like Dorothy’s three companions with their missing qualities. Instead of taking a journey themselves, they finance a cross-country shipment. There’s a witch (Malkina) with large pets (the cheetahs), an innocent young woman (Laura), a wizard who won’t help anybody (the drug lord), and a crystal ball (the “cautionary” diamond).

In The Wizard of Oz the characters’ weaknesses in mind, heart, and courage turn out to be latent strengths. In The Counselor these weaknesses are both genuine and fatal (Reiner dies while running away, Westray falls into a honey trap, and the Counselor’s stupidity gets Laura killed). Both movies agree that all three elements are needed to form a complete human being, but when Malkina singles out courage at the end, if we bear in mind that this movie – as its title tells us – is dispensing advice, we should understand that courage is the only one of those three qualities that can be exhorted. It’s futile to tell anyone to become smarter, while mercy, empathy, or love can rarely be summoned where they don’t already exist… but courage may be coaxed even from the faint of heart if the appeal is made well enough.

The Counselor - Ridley Scott - Rubén Blades - Jefe - druglord - billiard table - telephone

The movie’s appeal to courage does not take place in a vacuum. The Counselor portrays a world where entropy works with furtive speed to unravel people’s hopes and plans, and in such a world courage is our best refuge. The movie draws an arc from happiness to despair, from the protagonist making love with his fiancée to talk of unimaginable slaughter. The three leading men all show a moral compass, yet they get involved in a disastrous drug deal. The Counselor’s journey in this dark world is bracketed by the same word at both ends: the flirtatious “¡Hola, guapo!” when he first crosses paths with Malkina, and “Hola” again scrawled on the dreadful disc. He has two long philosophical conversations, one with the jeweler that’s full of hope (“We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives”), and another with the drug lord that closes off all hope. Even the drugs’ journey is bracketed by two versions of the same line: “Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos” when the drivers witness immigrants crossing the border with hope of better lives, and John Leguizamo’s sardonic “Welcome to America” addressed to the pickled corpse that accompanied the drugs as a demonstration of the cartel’s ruthlessness. Again and again the arc points downward.

There’s another eloquent pairing in the two shocking scenes near the end. Westray gets beheaded by a bolito in London, and then, just when we can hardly expect anything worse, the Counselor receives the disc at his Mexican hotel, presumably containing a snuff film of Laura’s death. One of these presents violence in typical Hollywood fashion, as a visual spectacle, but the other, without putting anything violent on the screen, shows how violence actually affects people. Both scenes are disturbing, but the second should be devastating.

The Counselor - Ridley Scott - Cameron Diaz - ending - wine - hoodie

There’s no relief from the nightmare in this story, but that’s in the nature of a cautionary tale. The point of The Counselor is not to throw us into despair, but to remind us not to be naive about the world we live in, where powerful psychopaths can do unimaginable damage if we fail to match their courage. Courage is a selfless quality, and for those of us who possess empathy it consists in holding bravely to our natures. Our world is threatened by the cowardice of good people who give psychopaths the oxygen they need to operate, which we do by assisting in their dirty work, looking away from their crimes, or even voting for them. Malkina and the cartel leader would be powerless if people with consciences refused to play along with their schemes. As Westray says, “Think about that the next time you do a line.”


The Wizard of Oz – Three male characters lack brains, heart, courage; diamond as crystal ball; witch/Malkina and wizard/druglord

Holiday Inn – Insight into courage, with a historically timely call to summon the audience’s courage

Psycho – Opening with panorama of southwestern American city leading into window where a couple is making love around 2 p.m.; story about a theft and the murder of a woman

The Structure of Crystal – Philosophical commentary inspired by gemstones, with the implicit or explicit suggestion of nature’s superiority, the value of a crystal being in its irregularities

Hannibal – Argument about society’s response to psychopaths and the courage needed to minimize their harm

The Martian – Solution to the social problem of psychopathic or destructive outliers