Brad Pitt, left, and Michael Fassbender get tangled up in a Texas drug deal that goes way bad in 'The Counselor.' (Twentieth Century Fox)
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In the vast sea of mass-appeal mediocrity that usually floods the octoplex at any given time, extreme highs and lows are relatively rare.
But just weeks after the transcendently exhilarating “Gravity” exploded onto the big screen, we get the much anticipated but perplexingly dreary and maddeningly opaque “The Counselor,” which feels doubly disappointing because of the wall-to-wall A-list talent involved:
The director is Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator” and many other classics); the writer is Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy (“The Road,” “No Country for Old Men”), penning his first original screenplay; and the top-shelf cast features Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt.
The problem, surprisingly, is McCarthy, who apparently wrote this script in the same mindset in which he writes his justifiably acclaimed novels. That’s to say, virtually every scene features characters speaking in a way human beings never actually speak: long, looping, esoteric, crypto-philosophical expositions.
Anyone familiar with McCarthy’s novels knows that he makes this work brilliantly on the page with his singular prose style.
But you can stop, ponder and re-read such passages in a book as often as necessary to absorb and savor their meaning. That’s impossible while watching a film that keeps pushing forward, piling one windy, ponderously impenetrable speech upon another until all you can do is scratch your head.
It hardly helps that McCarthy remains far more interested in theme than character. The talented actors give it their all, but they simply can’t bring much heft to two-dimensional roles that lack any background context.
In fact, McCarthy is so disinterested in the human dimension that Fassbender’s title character isn’t even given a name; everyone else in the film simply calls him “counselor.” (“Hello, counselor.”)
The nominal plot has Fassbender, a Texas lawyer who apparently specializes in shady clients, hooking up with a rich playboy pal (Bardem, sporting a spiky hairdo and tinted glasses that make him look like Robert Downey Jr.’s debauched uncle) in a deal to smuggle a huge haul of cocaine up from Mexico.
Fassbender intends this to be his golden parachute and plans to use his cut to whisk away his significant other (Cruz) and live a life of luxurious ease.
Also in on the action is Pitt, sporting a white 10-gallon cowboy hat and Texas twang, acting as some sort of middleman, and Diaz as Bardem’s slinky squeeze, a woman who has a pair of pet cheetahs and looks like one herself, with cheetah-print tattoos, pointy silver fingernails and cat-like eyeliner.
A series of vicious doublecrosses ensues as these and other players vie for control of the septic truck carrying the hidden payload, but McCarthy almost perversely refuses to clearly define the who, what and why of it all.
In keeping with all his work, however, there’s plenty of violence, including the grisly beheading of a minor character as well as the spectacular murder of a major character by a fiendish gizmo called a “bolito,” a motorized garrotte that, once dropped around a neck and activated, can’t be turned off as it slowly tightens over several minutes until it slices the carotid arteries.
More uncharacteristically, McCarthy also tosses in a couple of intense sex scenes. The film’s very first scene, in fact, features Fassbender and Cruz ruffling the sheets for a good five minutes.
Later, Diaz quite literally fornicates with a Ferrari, much to the slack-jawed amazement of Bardem, who gets off the film’s best line when he later recounts the scene for Fassbender and observes: “You see a thing like that, it changes you.”
I can vouch for that; it is indeed a scene that once seen can never be unseen.
The entire film falls neatly in line with McCarthy’s obsession with the depraved depths to which people will sink in thrall to naked, mindless greed.
“Greed really takes you to the edge, doesn’t it?” Diaz muses to Bardem in one scene.
“That’s not what greed does,” he replies. “That’s what greed is.”
It’s a worthy theme, particularly in an era when the rapacious “1 percent” is bent on hovering and hoarding an ever-increasing proportion of our nation’s wealth.
But any artist obsessed with a single theme runs the risk of eventually beating it senseless, to diminishing effect. With the self-indulgent “The Counselor,” McCarthy may well have reached that point.■
Rated R for graphic violence, strong sexual content and language. Got a rant or rave about the movies? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.