I was slack-jawed and spellbound while watching Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay unfold on screen. Diabolically unpredictable and wildly discursive, problematic yet bold, the story itself is not the thing: it's the characters and the words, and the twisted criminal universe in which they exist, standing apart from anything resembling a conventional legal thriller.
A desert-washed noir, The Counselor is set in the modern day, in the twilight zone where Texan bravado and Mexican fatalism collide with a woman who is an ice-blooded, fever-dream fantasy figure straight out of Jim Thompson. Waking up on a lazy afternoon under the sheets with a lawyer and his lady, the facts of the case are laid out plainly. The counselor ignores warnings raised by associates, enters into a drug deal, and pays the price when things go bad.
The fat is sliced from the plot bones and simmered in a philosophical stew served to the Counselor by a series of characters who form, collectively, a Greek chorus of doom. An Amsterdam diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz), a colorful middleman (Javier Bardem), and an impassive middleman (Brad Pitt) wax poetic to the lawyer (Michael Fassbender), who listens but does not hear what they are saying. An imprisoned mother (Rosie Perez) banters and bargains. And Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the colorful middleman's femme fatale, a brilliant mastermind of uncertain Latin origin and overwhelming drive, prowls about like an imprisoned cheetah, biding her time until someone forgets to lock the cage.
Playing out like the transcribed ramblings of a drunken sailor, nothing about The Counselor should work. As a splendid example: the two middlemen fulfill the exact same function; one is all that is needed to provide a connection between the lawyer and the Mexican drug cartel, yet we have two, and the film is all the more flavorful for it.
Novelist McCarthy, who has written for the screen twice before, is not ignorant about audience expectations or traditional plot development or the maxim that films should show and not tell. He breaks those rules for the greater creative good and, perhaps, for his own creative satisfaction. Thus, the film lurches forward and then stops, like a city bus on a busy route. Despite hopping between character perspectives, the audience is left on that bus, peering out and not always seeing the larger picture, not knowing when the final destination will be reached, or even what the last stop will be.
Ridley Scott directs with spare economy. Every shot counts, and every one serves the material for good or for bad. Michael Fassbender is the rock that starts things rolling, but his reserve is gradually chipped away, and his soul is transformed in a most uncomfortable and unflattering series of surgeries; the actor is up to the task.
Not so successful is Penelope Cruz, as the counselor's lover, a role that calls for a naive, reserved personality, which Cruz cannot summon forth at this point of her career. The large cast includes Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Natalie Dormer, and Ruben Blades, who all deliver spot-on performances in small roles, leaving the puzzling choice of Cameron Diaz to ponder.
Diaz enacts one memorably weird scene involving the windshield of a sports car with as much sexual flair as possible, but flounders when her turn comes to give life to McCarthy's florid dialogue. She sounds like an American high school student reading Shakespeare aloud for the first time in her life, uncertain about the rhythm and unable to add any meaning to what she is reciting. It's either a brilliant choice or a horrible miscalculation. Is she an actress struggling with her lines, or a frozen-hearted survivor of her times, incapable of human empathy?
Outwardly deranged and inwardly dazzling, The Counselor nods yes and says nothing more.
The film opens wide in theaters across North America on Friday, October 25.