It's a commonly held dictum that great novelists often make very bad screenwriters. Cormac McCarthy, certainly one of our best living novelists, follows in the footsteps of no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald with The Counselor, the sleazy, mean, and sometimes entertaining bomb born of McCarthy's first original screenplay. Perhaps Fitzgerald will no longer be the most commonly cited example of brilliant novelists who should leave the screenwriting to others. But while The Counselor is quite bad, at least it's bad in interesting, grandiose ways.
All the elements are in place for a movie that isn't awful. McCarthy is working in a genre that suits him with The Counselor's Southwest-noir yarn about greed, corruption, and casual evil. But the things that work so well on the page are poorly suited for the screen, even with Ridley Scott at the helm.
For starters, there's the dialogue. McCarthy's complex, heady exchanges read beautifully, but they sound stilted and unnatural when actors are presented with the unenviable task of saying them aloud to one another. Michael Fassbender, who stars as the title character, fares pretty well; as a corrupt attorney with a taste for living beyond his means, it's not hard to buy him as a guy who speaks in elaborate metaphors and philosophical meanderings. Other actors, including Brad Pitt as a womanizing underworld middleman and Cameron Diaz as a gold-toothed, predatory femme fatale, don't get off so easily.
McCarthy's dialogue actually serves the main character well. There's something fake about him—a disconnect between the sincere, love-struck guy we meet in the film's opening scene and the greedy playboy who shows up whenever the Counselor is working. We never get to know him well, or even learn his name—he's always addressed simply as "Counselor"—but something doesn't add up. He's engaged to marry Laura (Penélope Cruz), an impossibly sweet woman with whom he is completely and earnestly in love. But he's also gotten himself into some sort of financial trouble, and he intends to solve the problem by buying into a poorly defined scheme to smuggle $20 million worth of drugs into the United States. The fact that things will go spectacularly wrong is such a given that the details of the disaster are sketchy at best; a drug runner gets his head lopped off because someone wants what's in his helmet, and, just like that, the Counselor is undone. He spends a great deal of time listening to people tell him how screwed he is in very eloquent ways, but the extent of his role in the story is pretty much to be the guy that bad stuff will happen to.
Malkina (Diaz) is far more interesting. With her immaculately foiled nails, gold tooth, and cheetah-print tattoos, the character is particularly ill-suited for McCarthy's highbrow wordplay—bless her for even trying to say things like, "It is our faintness of heart that has driven us to the edge of ruin"—but she is without a doubt the most interesting player in this grim, downbeat tale. Malkina is the current squeeze of Reiner (Javier Bardem), a flamboyant cartel operative who is coming to realize that, in Malkina, he has brought a force into his life that he can't contain. In one of The Counselor's most memorable scenes, Reiner recounts the night Malkina date-raped his Ferrari. The scene, narrated by an aghast Reiner and shown in detail, is both hilarious and unsettling. Malkina, we realize, is the doer; everyone else is simply the done-to.
And that is, narratively, at least, The Counselor's biggest problem. It's a movie about ideas and little else. As a book, it could have been brilliant. As a film, it's predictable to the point of, well, pointlessness. Very little actually happens, and when it does, it's really hard to care. There's a veritable arsenal of Chekhov's guns, with characters giving grim soliloquies about snuff films and gruesomely inventive murder weapons, and all of them will play into the story exactly how you think they will. The Counselor is loaded with twists, but it has few surprises.
Still, though, it manages to be weirdly charming, if "charming" is a word that can apply to a movie this nihilistic and ugly, where arterial spray is a plot point and more than one character walks around with a figurative "cut my head off" sign taped to his back. At its best, it's gruesome, sun-soaked trash masquerading as a brooding drama. There's something seductive about the film when it doesn't take itself too seriously, but those moments are relatively few. For all its high-minded pretense, The Counselor is ultimately an empty affair.