It's unlikely that 2013 will see the release of a movie that's more nihilistic than The Counselor, an overheated curio in which bad things happen to bad people, worse things happen to good people, good things happen to the worst people, and Cameron Diaz's vagina is summarily dismissed as looking like a "catfish."
Despite Ridley Scott as director and a powerhouse cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem, The Counselor is mainly being touted as the first film written directly for the screen by Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for such novels as No Country for Old Men and The Road. At its best, this film is reminiscent of the philosophical slant often taken by the Coen Brothers, particularly in (well, duh) their adaptation of No Country for Old Men. At its worst, it recalls the excesses of latter-day Oliver Stone, with a whiff of the awful Savages hovering around its edges. Of course, that's as much to do with the storyline as with anything else, given that both works center around the drug trade and its nasty practitioners.
Here, the protagonist is Fassbender's counselor, a character so one-dimensional that he isn't even given a name. His fiancee isn't any more developed -- or interesting -- but she at least comes with ID: Laura (Penelope Cruz), so pure, innocent and naive that she makes Mother Teresa look like Aileen Wuornos by comparison. Despite words of warning from two of the more benign figures on the scene, the colorful Reiner (Bardem) and the cautious Westray (Pitt), the counselor opts to get involved in a major drug operation involving the Mexican cartel -- a decision he regrets once everything starts going wrong.
McCarthy is clearly in love with his own prose, as evidenced by the sizable number of monologues uttered by various characters throughout the course of the picture. As with Mamet or Tarantino, it's a specialized form of patter, and while there are several clunky passages in the mix, much of it is fresh and fun to follow -- I especially enjoyed the banter between Reiner and the counselor, as well as anytime Westray elected to voice his opinions on the wrecked world around us.
Unfortunately, McCarthy spends so much time on the dialogue that he critically neglects the plot -- this is a movie where any number of characters aren't identified and where key relationships are never explained. Consequently, this lack of focus often moves the film past appreciable ambiguity and into unacceptable incoherence.
It wouldn't exactly be accurate to label The Counselor a misogynistic movie since it's more a misanthropic one -- McCarthy exhibits contempt for everyone -- but it should be noted that the two female characters are the ones painted in the broadest strokes. Cruz's Laura is all sunshine and smiles while Diaz's Malkina, Reiner's Machiavellian lover, is posited as the ultimate femme fatale -- ergo, extreme positions as Good and Evil, Madonna and Whore, Snow White and the Queen, Laverne and Shirley (wait, what?). Bardem and Pitt are allowed a bit more flexibility with their roles, and as such, they deliver the most memorable performances (Bardem is especially a treat to watch).
As for Fassbender, he brings his usual intensity to a part that hardly seems worth all the huffing and puffing. We suss little about the counselor except that he doesn't seem like a very bright fellow (that's right, dude, tell your fiancee to go back to the house and make travel arrangements when you know that some very bad men are looking for both of you). And if he's so dumb, how did he become a lawyer in the first place? Of all the questions McCarthy fails to answer, that just might be the most glaring one of all.