The trailers for Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” make it look like the kind of gonzo crime thriller his brother Tony used to make. Au contraire, this Cormac McCarthy-scripted potboiler turns out to be a chillingly detached, borderline-sociopathic account of how getting mixed up in a Mexican drug deal can ruin the lives of all involved. (Hint: It’s a good way to wind up pickled in septic barrels or headless in a landfill.) What might have made a mean, sinewy indie thriller escalates in budget, but not necessarily excitement, as Scott and an appallingly miscast group of A-list stars fumble their way through thickets of dense philosophical dialogue, alienating audiences who would’ve happily settled for a more conventional genre movie.
Capitalizing on the love Hollywood has shown him with its adaptations of “No Country for Old Men,” “The Road” and “All the Pretty Horses,” McCarthy decided to stray from his comfort zone of terse, no-nonsense novels to try his hand at screenwriting, cooking up a globe-spanning doozy with roots just south of the Rio Grande border. The title — a perverse lawyer joke, considering that the counselor in question spends all his time seeking advice from others — refers to the pic’s protagonist, a typically by-the-book Texas attorney (Michael Fassbender) who, his back against the metaphorical wall, decides just this once to openly violate the law.
Whatever his strengths in print, McCarthy clearly doesn’t understand how drama and suspense work onscreen, pouring most of his efforts into crafting impenetrably baroque conversations between loosely sketched stereotypes, wrongheadedly convinced that confusion and a growing sense of dread are sufficient to keep us riveted. We first meet Fassbender’s character in bed, where his sexual chemistry with soon-to-be-fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz) is presumed reason enough to hope the couple lives to screw another day. Meanwhile, everything else in the film points to just the opposite: that this lawyer has already crossed a moral line, sealing both of their fates — and those of everyone else he touches — in a kind of Faustian bargain.
McCarthy unveils a splintered web of associates, some direct, some one or two degrees removed, but all involved in what should have been a simple scheme to transform a few thousand dollars into $20 million by investing in a cocaine scam. Simple schemes have a way of getting awfully complicated when the screenwriter responsible decides to obfuscate the basics (drugs are stashed in a septic truck, driven across the Tex-Mex border, recovered in El Paso and then sent to Chicago to be sold on the streets), focusing instead on the ruthless obstacles that lie in his characters’ path.
The counselor — whom McCarthy never gives a proper name, nor a proper personality — merely wants to settle his debts, then settle down with Laura. This much we know about him: He’s devilishly handsome, 100% devoted and dangerously naive, getting mixed up with all manner of psychos without suspecting that those relationships might come back to haunt him. Can he trust pretty-boy middleman Westray (Brad Pitt, effectively playing the grown-up, sobered-up version of his “True Romance” stoner-philosopher)? And what about Reiner (Javier Bardem), who runs a nightclub business as a half-assed front for his shadier dealings?
Having previously played McCarthy’s most iconic character, the cattle gun-toting hitman Anton Chigurh, Bardem tackles a more flamboyant role here as this Versace-wearing cross between coked-up Robert Downey Jr. and spastic Christopher Walken. Though everything here serves to echo the for-shame philosophical monologue at the end of “No Country for Old Men” — in which crime has grown crueler, impervious to any law, on earth or in heaven — the entire story serves to illustrate the inexorable consequences of casting one’s lot with those who have no respect for life.
It’s written as tragedy, but enacted with such cold indifference that one is left reeling from the experience, which Scott has directed elegantly enough to feel like a feature-length advert for the criminal lifestyle, rather than a condemnation of same. Everyone in “The Counselor” comes decked out in designer clothes of some sort. For Fassbender and Cruz, it’s Armani. Bardem’s flashiest accessory is his g.f., Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who sports a gold tooth, silver fingernails and a full-back cheetah tattoo.
Malkina may look like mere arm candy, but she’s not to be underestimated. In fact, those who bother to unpack McCarthy’s unnecessarily obtuse script will find that she’s actually the mastermind behind most of the mayhem in “The Counselor” — a ruthless bitch whose veins no doubt course with liquid nitrogen. Malkina eavesdrops on Reiner’s conversations and discreetly calls the shots behind the scenes that result in several decapitations, that grisly means of death favored by Mexican cartel capos.
In an early scene, Reiner happens to mention something called a “bolito,” a mechanical device consisting of a loop of steel and a self-powered motor that tightens gradually until the unlucky wearer loses his head. As with Chekhov’s gun, one doesn’t bring up such a weapon without intending to use it before the show’s over. Although McCarthy’s script leaves so much else to the imagination, it figures that Scott (who also brought us the sight of Anthony Hopkins serving brains from Ray Liotta’s open-capped cranium in “Hannibal”) would insist on indulging such a spectacle.
That, as audiences have no doubt already heard, is but one of several indelible images “The Counselor” bequeaths upon a public undeserving of such punishment. Sure to become the most notorious — joining Sharon Stone’s “Basic Instinct” interrogation and the “Wild Things” pool scene in the pantheon of bad-movie golden moments — is a sequence in which Diaz mounts the hood of Bardem’s yellow Ferrari, complete with sound effects.
With the exception of Bruno Ganz as an Amsterdam diamond dealer and “Breaking Bad’s” Dean Norris as an over-curious drug buyer, none of the other actor-to-part pairings feel right in this film. (Such recognizable pros as Rosie Perez, Edgar Ramirez and John Leguizamo, uncredited, all distract in roles better suited to unfamiliar faces.) But Diaz is by far the most committed to an impossible character, wearing that same unnaturally menacing expression Kristin Scott Thomas did in “Only God Forgives”earlier this year, as if dying to acknowledge the role’s camp potential.
In helming, Scott makes minimal use of music or flashy camerawork (two ways in which the film couldn’t be less like a Tony Scott picture), content to let McCarthy’s words take the fore, lest his own contributions distract. The script is nearly all dialogue, including several eloquent spoken passages toward the end, but it’s a lousy story, ineptly constructed and rendered far too difficult to follow. The film doesn’t end so much as stop.
Some might argue that “The Counselor” demands a second viewing, though the first is too unpleasant to recommend, even in a so-bad-it’s-good context. The industry is too often intimidated by intellect, and this project bears all the signs of perfectly smart, talented people putting their faith in a rotten piece of material simply because it bore McCarthy’s name. When the dust settles, heads are gonna roll, and it won’t be a pretty sight.