Early into The Counselor, a merciless desert noir about crime not paying and best-laid plans going astray, an eccentric kingpin (Javier Bardem) tells his new accomplice, the titular lawyer (Michael Fassbender), about a weapon being used by the drug cartels. A kind of portable guillotine, the device clamps around a victim’s neck, a strand of unbreakable alloy tightening like a boa constrictor, second by second, until the head pops clean off the body. For viewers, this charming anecdote should make a couple things clear: First, that they’ll eventually get to see this instrument of doom in action, as gruesome proof of Chekhov’s theory about guns introduced in the first act; and second, that they’re watching the work of the same unforgiving storyteller who turned a captive bolt pistol into Anton Chigurh’s trustiest tool. The ingenious new killing machine is basically a mechanized noose, which makes it a fine metaphor for the whole movie—a thriller that coils around the neck of its protagonist, a slick but naïve attorney undone by his involvement in an ill-fated smuggling operation.
The screenplay of The Counselor was written by revered novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose fingerprints are all over it. Like many of his books, it’s set near the U.S.-Mexican border, and features drug deals gone awry, greedy men in over their heads, and a plot that might best be described as existential Elmore Leonard. There are numerous echoes of No Country For Old Men, including Bardem in a silly haircut, but also a crucial difference between the two: That earlier work, so masterfully (and faithfully) brought to the screen by the Coen Brothers, conveyed McCarthy’s pessimistic worldview almost exclusively through the architecture of its story, particularly its devastating anticlimax. The Counselor, on the other hand, puts all its big ideas right into the mouths of its actors: Long stretches of the film consist of nothing but florid conversation, as characters bounce philosophical musings off of each other, turning even the gravest encounter—for example, two meetings with a pragmatic middle man, played by Brad Pitt—into overwritten gab sessions. Opinions will vary on whether lines like “Truth has no temperature” are clever, but it’s hard to deny that The Counselor might have benefited from a sparer, less talkative approach. As in last year’s similarly fatalistic Killing Them Softly, the pretensions of profundity sometimes muddy what is, at its core, a mercenary genre piece.
Ushering McCarthy’s bleak vision to the screen is Ridley Scott, who once toyed with adapting the writer’s viciously violent oater, Blood Meridian. Never the most sentimental of filmmakers, Thelma & Louise excepted, Scott is a fine fit for this tale of cutthroat backdoor business. The film looks spectacular, even as it basically swipes its color palette from No Country, and Scott stages the violence—a doomed getaway attempt, brutal highway fatalities—with his usual icy technical proficiency. No amount of needless chatter can quite dilute the power of The Counselor’s grim endgame, especially given the way its writer and director conspire to keep the threat offscreen, like some terrible, unseen force of nature. Still, it would have been nice if the movie didn’t veer so dangerously close to outright misogyny. Besides the hero’s saintly damsel of a love interest (Penelope Cruz), the only other prominent female character is the vamping bisexual moll of Bardem’s businessman, played by a severely miscast Cameron Diaz. Confirming all of her husband’s fears about dating smart women, she schemes wildly, crashes a confession booth, and—in a lurid flashback—makes love to the windshield of a car, her sex pressed tight against the glass like “a bottom-feeding catfish.” Maybe every noir needs a femme fatale, but The Counselor needed this cartoonish variation about as much as its characters want fiber wires wrapped around their throats.