Having apparently concluded that his work to date is unrealistically optimistic, Pulitzer Prize-winning (for "The Road") novelist Cormac McCarthy has at age 80 written his first original screenplay.
The resulting movie — directed by Ridley Scott — seems to have been conceived for those who found “No Country for Old Men” implausibly upbeat.
“The Counselor” begins with a long opening scene in which a lawyer known only as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his paramour Laura (Penelope Cruz) make love in the bedroom of his uber-modern El Paso home. Enjoy it. It’s the only moment of tenderness in the whole two hours.
Next we see the Counselor in Europe buying a big diamond from a chatty dealer (Bruno Ganz). He’s going to propose to his gal.
So far, so normal.
But it slowly dawns on us (slowly because in his dialogue McCarthy has declared war on simple declarative sentences) that the Counselor is having money problems and, in an attempt to turn things around, has invested in a very shady deal: drug smuggling.
In Mexico we see barrels of the stuff being placed inside the tank of a rust bucket septic service truck and covered with human waste — because what border guard wants to delve too deeply into such a repellent mess? (I’m not kidding. This movie must have employed a turd wrangler.)
The Counselor has a couple of partners in this nefarious venture. Westray (Brad Pitt) is a savvy facilitator in Stetson and cowboy-chic suit who conducts business in restaurants and talks matter-of-factly about all the things that can go wrong with this sort of enterprise. Think of his dialogue as foreshadowing.
Reiner (Javier Bardem, with a ‘do that looks like an exploding outhouse) runs local nightclubs and lives lavishly, but also needs to make a lot of money fast. He’s living with the predatory Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who not only keeps two pet cheetahs but has had her body tattooed with cat-like spots. I suppose you could call her sexy, but in a very creepy way.
There’s also the Counselor’s client, a female drug kingpin (Rosie Perez) serving time in a Texas prison. She requests that our hero intervene on behalf of her son, who’s been arrested for speeding. That seemingly inconsequential act has grave repercussions.
Blink and you’ll miss cameos by John Leguizamo, Dean Norris (the late Hank of “Breaking Bad”), Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn in “The Tudors”), Goran Visnjic (“E.R.”) and Ruben Blades.
None of these individuals — save for Cruz’s deer-in-the-headlights innocent — has any redeeming qualities. Notwithstanding his love for Laura, the Counselor is pretty much a cold fish, which makes him a less-than-compelling protagonist.
The moral of McCarthy’s tale is that once you get involved in the Dark Side there’s no turning back. The bad guys here — interchangeable drug cartel killers — are faceless and implacable. They just keep coming at you until there’s no escape. Talk —something the Counselor must be good at — has no power here.
“The Counselor” looks good — Scott always makes good-looking films — and takes full advantage of the ugly/beautiful Southwestern landscape. A couple of action scenes have been well staged.
But McCarthy’s super-literary dialogue is off-putting. I think he’s aiming for a Mamet-esque tone, but he doesn’t have Mamet’s sense of humor. Or any sense of humor at all.
The film is frustrating because nobody here actually says what they mean. They all talk in code, in metaphor, and this tangential approach will leave some audience members wondering what the hell they just saw.
Anyway, “The Counselor” is so unrelentingly bleak that showers should be installed at theater exits.