80-year-old Cormac McCarthy, the master of bleak morality tales, has written his first spec film script and Ridley Scott, the vigorous king of the high-gloss thriller, has directed - it's a creative hook-up of art and action that has attracted A listers like a malevolently humming magnet.
Extraordinary then that The Counsellor is rendered ridiculous by McCarthy’s speechifying script and a performance from Cameron Diaz that really does beggar belief.
The saving grace is Scott's compulsive direction and Michael Fassbender. Thin as a blade and seemingly as smooth and sharp too, he plays The Counsellor, a rich and successful lawyer who is about to propose to his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz) but not before he makes a quick buck by becoming involved in a high stakes drug deal with the cool Reiner (Bardem), a businessman and bit player for The Cartel.
Their middle-man is Westray, played by Brad Pitt as a laconic, cowboy-hatted dude full of caution for The Counsellor about just what he is getting himself into. The Counsellor, however, is arrogant, blinded by the mad possibilities of his love for Laura and his success in the courtroom.
With suicidal foolhardiness, he thinks he can play The Cartel like he plays a jury. He has made a terrible, terrible mistake and when the drug deal goes horribly wrong, it is he who becomes the scapegoat and the target. The Counsellor snaps into denial but the dreadful realisation of his future creeps inexorably as forces of evil are locked in a dance of death on deserted highways at dusk and the noose begins to tighten around his neck.
As you might expect, McCarthy and Scott really do make the menace radiate from the screen and their movie does share No Country For Old Men’s slow release of sheer morbid horror – at one point a question about snuff movies is dropped as a casual aside by Reiner to Fassbender and is then left to fester..
But The Counsellor’s biggest fault is the way McCarthy’s blunt, novelistic prose is tortuously twisted into dead-in-the-air dialogue. Everyone in this movie is a hugely articulate amateur philosopher, from the barman in a sweaty barrio, to a diamond dealer in Amsterdam, to Reiner who wrestles with moral questions of cosmic importance and even quotes Keats at one point.
Westray may look like an eighties Guess model gone to seed but like a southern preacher meets Max Cady he utters lines like “I'm pretty sceptical about the goodness of the good. I think that if you ransacked the archives of the redeemed you would uncover tales of moral squalor quite beyond the merely appalling.”
The fact that nobody actually talks like this is no barrier to McCarthy and Scott. If Bardem has at least a cooly-detached mien, Diaz is staggeringly miscast as his predatory girlfriend Malinka. Complete with leopard-spot tattoo down her back, ice for blood, a gold tooth and nails sculpted like talons on a bird of prey, she avers that “truth has no temperature.” and talks about "the elegance of the kill" as she watches her pet leopards take down rabbits in the high desert.
McCarthy really lays it on thick and Scott laps it up - the drugs are transported in a sewerage truck; million-dollar diamonds are prized for their imperfections; Cruz is overly docile as the embodiment of goodness; and naughty Malinka’s money lust sees her engage in an act of frottage with a Ferrari California that would have left JG Ballard gasping.
Scott’s direction is as tight and efficient as ever and we return to the sun-blanched border lands of Breaking Bad (joyfully, there is a brief appearance by Dean Norris). Ingenious and terrible death scenes are a McCarthy motif and like the medieval-style device that garrottes one hapless player here, The Counsellor does manage to wind the viewer tighter and tighter until the throat constricts and the heart nearly stops.
So McCarthy spins us back into his unforgiving moral universe, iridescent with spraying blood and toxic with bad vibes, and the characters act out a Manichean war of wills and greed as they trade lines like badass philosophy majors.
What was it Harrison Ford said to the George Lucas on the set of Star Wars? “George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”