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The Counselor

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Sam Spruell, Toby Kebbell, Edgar Ramirez, Ruben Blades, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 25 Oct 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 15 Nov 2013 (General release); 2013)

I Don't Know What She Knows

“I don’t know what she knows,” declares Reiner (Javier Bardem), “I don’t want to know. She’s a woman.” He’s talking with his unnamed friend, the counselor (Michael Fassbender), about the woman he says he loves, or might love, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). On one hand, Reiner suggests, Malkina is like all women to all men, unfathomable but oh so desirable. Advising the counselor On another, and oh so tedious hand, however, she exceeds this basic stereotype: Malkina is the epitome of the malevolent, magnificent other.

You know this because she first appears in The Counselor on a horse, galloping along with a cheetah in pursuit of a rabbit. She loves cheetahs, she says later, because they’re pure, because they hunt, because they’re ruthless. She doesn’t need to say that she loves the pair she owns because she owns them: they sit, they purr, they wait. And they resemble the tattoo of a cheetah pelt pattern she has running along her back. You see this tattoo for the first time while observing Malkina with Laura (Penélope Cruz), the counselor’s consort.

Their discussion of men isn’t nearly like the men’s discussion of them. While Laura is fluttery and sweet, enraptured with the man who has bequeathed on her a gigantic diamond ring as a token of his commitment, Malkina calculates, assessing the rock’s size and quality, vaguely condescending toward her lovely and naïve, soft and vulnerable not-quite-friend. “You’re a church lady,” Malkina evaluates, quickly gauging whether or what sins and confessions might be means to ends. Laura bows her head and seems embarrassed, not crass, not ugly. But Malkina plunges ahead, pronouncing not only what matters most—to her, perhaps. “What a world,” she states, a phrase she has to explain to sweet Laura: it’s not the world generally, but Laura’s world that remains at once inescapable and impossible.

This opposition of women provides a rudimentary structure for the brutal melodrama of Ridley Scott’s film, as written by Cormac McCarthy. Even as the men engage in a deal that crosses between Juarez and El Paso, involving bricks of drugs disguised inside a sewage tanker, they know (and don’t know, apparently) the risks they take. The men imagine they can handle their business, a fantasy that’s articulated by a brief conversation between the counselor and his middle-man and advisor, Westray (Brad Pitt). His detailed description of what happens when a certain lethal gizmo is applied to victims’ necks ensures that you will see this gizmo in action by film’s end; the counselor’s look of vague horror at the description doesn’t suggestion that he quite appreciates what Westray is trying to tell him.

This is the story of all the men in The Counselor. As much as they counsel one another, as much as they share jokes and assume they understand, exchange stories about women and wants and their own monumental fictional capacities, they miss the essential and most obvious point, that their greed will do them in. They can’t know, being fictional characters, that their greed also has a human form, Malkina. Or perhaps more to that obvious point, a human-esque form.

Just so, Malkina is the most unfathomable of unfathomables, the most spectacular of spectaculars. While the film includes a third female term, the vengeful incarcerated mother (Rosie Perez), it is structured across the two women who define their men, which is to say, the choices their men make. Where Malkina is first framed by the binoculared gaze of the ever-yearning Reiner, Laura appears under billowing white bed sheets alongside her man, as they exchange goofily earnest declarations of devotion. If Reiner doesn’t want to know what Malkina thinks or does, the counselor wants only to know and deliver to his object’s desires. The difference appears to be one of intent: the counselor wants to do right by his lady, Reiner wants to survive his, maybe.

The women provide other sorts of definition too. Laura floats in perfection, always beautiful, always moved, always grateful, for the ring, for the sex, for the declarations of devotion. Malkina grinds. She wants. She grinds to get what she wants. During the already notorious scene where, as Reiner describes it in hindsight, Malkina “fucked my car”, she is daunting, utterly terrifying as she spreads her legs across the yellow Ferrari’s windshield (“She was a dancer,” he offers by way of explanation), a vagina all about devouring. Looking back, Reiner still shudders, telling the counselor that the incident haunts hi to this day, however many months or years later, and that he can’t put into words what he thinks about it: “It was too gynecological!” he exclaims.

The counselor interjects here with the most appropriate and only possible response, wondering why Reiner told him such a story. You’re wondering too. But you also know, even if you don’t want to know, exactly why you’ve seen this seen, Reiner’s wide eye and gaping mouth, Malkina’s sinuous but also mechanical moves, and the yellow car, victimized. Whatever else happens in this movie, whoever else pays a price or feels consumed, suffers violent retribution or executes it, the woman who fucks a car is most audacious, most incomprehensible and the most deeply banal emblem, the limit of men’s imaginations.


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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