When Cormac McCarthy, arguably this country's greatest living author, takes it upon himself to write anything it's a big deal. But when it's his first original screenplay, after years of watching others adapt his sordid underworld tales to great success, the anticipation for it is understandably high. And The Counselor is exactly the type of ugly, depraved tale of the vengeful and virtue-less that fans of his work will love, gifted with McCarthy's virtuoso dialogue and a white-hot cast. While the story itself is a bit messy with extraneous characters and all of their various scheming, it's deliciously evil and nasty stuff that makes for a great guilty pleasure.
The film begins with one of those too-happy-to-be-true scenes between lovers that tell you something awful is going to come between them very soon. But for now the bliss between the unnamed counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his cautiously frisky lover Laura (Penelope Cruz) underneath a veil of snow white bed sheets is a real and genuine thing. Laura's hesitance to give in completely to her passions marks her as an innocent, imbued with a religious piety and saintliness that we immediately know will be perceived as a weakness to some vile ruiner of souls.
The unwitting impetus for this destruction is caused by the counselor himself, a man who lives the high life in El Paso but like so many of McCarthy's tragic protagonists he needs more. He's overextended his resources, and the expensive engagement ring he just traveled to Amsterdam to buy doesn't help. To help get out of the jam he connects with his crazy-haired, crazy-clothed client Reiner (Javier Bardem) to put together a drug deal involving some unforgiving underworld-types. The gregarious and boastful Reiner's spirit is matched only by the immorality of his mistress Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a predatory woman too dangerous to keep around but too sexy to let go of. Like the pet cheetahs they share, she sees herself as a hunter; a hunter of riches and lives and everything others hold dear. And she's more than a little bit looney, to boot. She's the sort of woman that, for the fun of it, will confess all of her nastiest sins to a Catholic priest, who rebuffs her admissions. Perhaps she would have had better luck by telling him of the time she had sex with Reiner's car, in a scene that is too disturbing, hilarious, and (kind of) stimulating for mere words to do justice.
The nature of the criminal activity the counselor has chosen to undertake is sketchily drawn, but it doesn't really matter. All we need to know about it is made painfully clear by Reiner and ambiguous money-man Westray (Brad Pitt) when they try to warn him about the dangers. If something goes wrong the people at the top won't care if you're responsible. When Reiner starts talking about a vicious motorized wire weapon known as a bolito, we know at some point we're going to see someone we've grown attached to be the victim of it. The counselor doesn't really take heed of all this free advice he's being offered, and when things go belly up he's utterly unprepared for it. People start dying in McCarthy-ish fashion at a rapid clip, and the counselor is forced to deal with the unholy ramifications of his decision. Despite the numerous sharks swimming in the water this isn't a film about villains, it's about the bad choices good people sometimes make in an effort to do what's right, and how those choices sometimes can cost everything.
Not exactly fresh ground for McCarthy to tread but he creates an entire world of vivid characters that are never less than fascinating. Probably the least interesting of them all would be the counselor himself, and it's through no fault of Fassbender's whose steely gaze and cold features are perfect for a man so severely outmatched by his flashy peers. While he does a great job of getting across the counselor's increasing desperation as his life begins to crumble, the character is simply too distant and unreachable, with few qualities to make him interesting for very long. Bardem again gets to relish in a colorful bad guy role, although this one is considerably less menacing than No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh. Pitt nonchalantly flits in and out of the film like a feather on a gust of wind, while Diaz is hard to take your eyes off of as a classic femme fatale. These are McCarthy characters in the truest sense, and it's fair to say that none of them are perfectly well-rounded. We're meant to recognize them for the dirty dealers they are and nothing more. The macho philosophy that spills out of their mouths is easily digestible, if occasionally a little too theatrical to sound natural. An army of solid guest appearances shoulder the load even when the big guns are away, with the best being Rosie Perez as one of the counselor's imprisoned clients, who just wants to make sure her son on the outside is taken care of.
The Counselor looks like nothing Ridley Scott has directed before, but it's hardly his most distinctive work. He re-teams with his Prometheus cinematographer for the wonderfully striking visuals of the many alluring locales, but Scott's old passion only emerges intermittently. This is a film about characters and writing more so than visual flourishes, and it's McCarthy's grim voice that grips you most, like a metal wire pulled tight around the neck.