A pitiless Texas-border noir that wears its misanthropy like a lapel pin, The Counselor sets its agenda with a pair of opening scenes between lovers. In the first, the nameless El Paso lawyer of the title goes downtown on his idealized soon-to-be fiancée as director Ridley Scott's camera joins them under white bedsheets; though the couple is played by thirysomethings Michael Fassbender and Penélope Cruz, their dialogue has a corny, stilted quality of teenagers trying to sound like porn stars ("How do you know how to do that?" she says, to which he responds, "From hanging out with really nasty girls"). Cut to the desert outside the city, where nightlife honcho Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his hedonistic girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), watch his pair of pet cheetahs chase and kill wild rabbits. After she dismisses nostalgia as longing for things that are gone forever, he suggests she's "a bit cold." "I think truth has no temperature," Malkina asserts with the certainty of the justified.
Novelist Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay, The Counselor wavers for its duration between such archetypes; the corrupt and the compromised have a resigned understanding of humanity, while those who expect a semblance of moral order get what they can't believe is coming to them. In all scenes between Fassbender and Cruz, you can sense McCarthy playing with their characters like a cat with a dead mouse. Fassbender's Counselor partners with client Reiner and another shady kingpin (Brad Pitt, whose exhausted-sleaze act still amuses) on a "one-time deal" importing $20 million worth of cocaine from Juárez, to which Cruz's Laura remains oblivious. Anticipating the deal going bad, as it must for the naïve to get schooled on Planet Cormac, the golden couple's moony proposal scene is laden with darkly comical foreboding (he coos, "I plan to love you until I die.")
Though Fassbender is saddled with a bland and passive antihero, and his paramount love for his (Catholic and guileless) woman never achieves flesh-and-blood depth, McCarthy's schematic script is largely redeemed by Scott rendering the pulpiest elements with some trashy gusto. The tall-tale aura of the operatic revenge of Mexican drug gangs is something even the characters seem to equivocate on; Pitt's fatalistic shepherd tells the Counselor, "The beheadings and the mutilations? That's just business...It's not like there's some smoldering rage at the bottom of it." But once the mayhem is turned on midway, the plink of piano wire stretched across a highway sets off a clinical mix of sadism and flight surrounding the coke deal's principals, the septic-tank truck hauling the goods to Chicago, and the brainiest manipulator in the rogues' gallery (tipped much too early). Scott's dispassionate observation of a shootout between faux cops and truckers carries a made-to-order McCarthy chill, as does his cut from the contents of a motorcycle helmet being emptied to a champagne cork being popped. And when Bardem, embodying a much less abstract creation than Anton Chigurh this time out, recites the unique properties of a murder weapon called the bolito to the Counselor, well, it's just a matter of waiting to see whose neck will be juicily placed in such a noose.
The Counselor probably rises or falls on one's response to Diaz's slinky, slithery Malkina: Is she too much, or just enough, given all the solemn existential pronouncements by drug lords and barkeepers? Her orgasmic split, sans panties, atop Reiner's windshield seems most buzzed about, but the actress revels in another broad comic scene of crashing a church confessional just to test a priest, or simply conspiring in neutral tones over life and death (wearing a black one-sleeved dress) before hissing, "I'm famished!" (McCarthy equates her ravenous appetites, sexual and otherwise, with the more deadly capacities of predators; the movie doesn't quite reek of misogyny, but the whiff of a Madonna-and-whore opposition between Laura and Malkina is perhaps its most retrograde touch.)
McCarthy perhaps suffers in his first cinema-born effort of trying to insist on his themes too insistently through dialogue; the Counselor has a pair of first-act dialogues, with an Amsterdam diamond merchant (Bruno Ganz) and then Pitt's bruised scumbag, which key on the word "cautionary." And as the overwhelmed lawyer's situation grows yet more dire, he's lectured over the phone by a Juárez crime jefe (Rubén Blades) on "no(t) choosing, only accepting," as Mr. Big avails himself of a truly regal coffee-service set. (Crime does pay in McCarthy's world, at least for a while.) But the author's chops still deliver flavorful, character-driven moments when he doesn't bog down in philosophy, as in Rosie Perez's striking prison-visitation scene as an unyielding convict and mother. The Counselor doesn't temper enough of McCarthy's excesses, but Scott and his ensemble find enough meat in the scenario to make for diverting, bloody pleasure.