★★★ (out of 5 stars)
The Counselor, a collaboration between Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott, might be an old-fashioned morality tale. There’s a counselor, a man of law, who is tested. There’s a virtuous maiden. And there’s something that looks like evil. This being a story by McCarthy, however, we expect morality to be turned on its head. In the universe of the man who wrote Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, the question of morality is always moot; McCarthy is interested in laws of our own making. In this film, the first feature made from a script by McCarthy himself, the counselor (a mild Michael Fassbender) chooses to involve himself in a lucrative drug deal – to profit from the Mexican cartel wars. The deal goes wrong, of course, and the weight of the counselor’s choice is underscored by all the violence and bloodshed we expect from a McCarthy plot.
Visually, the film’s alternately glossy and gritty veneer engages the eye (Scott is no slouch in this department), and the cuts from the physical grunt work of the drug traffickers to the pristine rooms and slick socializing of the counselor’s world to the violence of the high desert create the sense of an end already set in motion. Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt are affable standouts among a colorful cast of reprobates, both of them at ease in their characters’ shifts between shit-talking and gravitas. In what might be the film’s most memorable set piece, Bardem’s slack-jawed Reiner recounts the night that his femme fatale of a ladyfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), fucked his car.
However, as McCarthy stories go, this one feels inconsequential. Its many portentous monologues strive to lend it the stark authority typical of the author, but there is too much to doubt – namely, its female characters. Women and romantic love have never been McCarthy’s strong suit; most of his novels avoid them, grounding themselves in the masculine landscape of the kind of nature that’s red in tooth and claw. He does this well. Yet much of this film’s credibility hinges on the counselor’s worshipful love for the angelic Laura (played with fluttering eyelashes by Penelope Cruz) and the characterization of Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Unfortunately, the love affair, which consists largely of avowals and diamonds, doesn’t provide the ballast we need to feel the impact of the counselor’s bad choices. And while Malkina may be intended to carry the archetypal force of No Country for Old Men’s Chigurh and Blood Meridian’s Judge, she doesn’t hold us in the thrall that McCarthy’s more satanic deviants have. She is certainly the embodiment of what so many of the film’s men fear in women: We first see her in the high desert, sipping cocktails as she watches her pet cheetahs hunt jackrabbits. A cartoonish character, to be sure, but she doesn’t have a chance of being taken seriously as played by Diaz. Vamping or stumbling instead of giving the more contained performance that such an extravagant character demands, Diaz brings Malkina closer to Cruella de Vil than to the complex figure she might have been in the hands of a different actress. And this is doubly unfortunate, not just because Malkina is the first substantive role that McCarthy has written for a woman, but because it sinks the world that the film is founded upon. Diaz’s performance of Malkina is just a caricature.
“As the world gives way to darkness,” a Juárez crime boss sermonizes toward the end of the film, “it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing which you have created, no more, no less.” And while it’s clear enough that the counselor and the numerous shady characters with whom he associates have, in effect, dug their own graves, the stakes hardly seem to matter.