When an indisputably great author like Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, The Road) writes his first original screenplay, attention must be paid. When that screenplay turns out to be as clunky as The Counselor, "forgive and forget" are the words that come to mind. Pulitzer Prize winner McCarthy, 80, has earned his place in the writing pantheon. The Coen brothers shaped his No Country for Old Men into a Best Picture Oscar winner in 2007 by meshing McCarthy's words and their vision with spare, thrilling exactitude.
No such discipline exists in The Counselor, a droning meditation on capitalism in the form of a thriller about cocaine trading on the Tex-Mex border. Director Ridley Scott gets in some fierce action in the film's final third. But the emphasis on talk leaves the words no room to breathe, much less resonate.
McCarthy's name has attracted a starry cast of chatterboxes. Michael Fassbender plays the title role; no one calls him anything but "Counselor." He naively signs on to expedite the importing of cocaine from Colombia to Chicago in a septic-tank truck. His reason for breaking bad? The girl of his dreams (Penélope Cruz). In the opening scene, they talk dirty to each other. "You have the most luscious pussy in all of Christendom," he says. "Oh, God," she says. A religious allegory? Let's hope so. As eroticism, it's, um, unconvincing.
The Counselor is soon in over his head. Westray, a middleman played by a bemused Brad Pitt, sets him straight: "You think you can live in this world and not be a part of it?" Guess not. When the deal goes bad, a panicked Counselor turns to the fixer Reiner (Javier Bardem) to save him from cartel vengeance. But Reiner has his own problems. He and his lady Malkina (Cameron Diaz) enjoy letting two cheetahs run wild in the desert to (symbol alert) hunt prey.
Reiner recounts a long, descriptive story about how Malkina once fucked his Ferrari. Then the film shows her doing it. "It was too gynecological to be sexy," says Reiner. I agree.
The rest of the movie piles on beatings, killings and grisly decapitations punctuated by conversations about morality. Oddly, the published screenplay – while far from McCarthy's top-drawer – reads better than it plays. What's onscreen recalls a line from No Country: "It's a mess, ain't it, Sheriff?"