One of the nifty, if somewhat unnecessary, visual flourishes in Ridley Scott's The Counselor, opening today, is a pair of cheetahs, two beautiful creatures whom we see tearing across burnt Texas scrub desert in elegant bounds and sitting perfectly still in poolside chairs, posing with regal menace, eyes calm but calculating. They're quite something to behold, but they're almost too striking, too symbolic. In that way, they're a good metaphor for the larger film, a sleek and scary affair that's a bit silly when you really think about it.
The Counselor is Cormac McCarthy's first-ever original screenplay, and is loaded with the kind of hard-boiled, manly philosophy we've come to expect from his spare, oftentimes bleak novels. But when applied directly to movie form — rather than, say, being brilliantly adapted by the Coen brothers, as McCarthy's No Country for Old Men was — McCarthy's language takes on a stiltedness, a pretentiousness even, that mars what is an otherwise compellingly dark tale of crime world mess.
Though the film is not without its moments of nimble philosophizing. Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem are particularly well-suited to McCarthy's rhythms, mulling over questions of morality, causality, and of course the nature of women, with an Elmore Leonardian cool. Both play cohorts of the titular, and otherwise unnamed, lawyer (Michael Fassbender), who is going in for one quick "jackpot" score, moving millions of dollars worth of cocaine out of Mexico, through El Paso. Though he seems to already be doing pretty well for himself, living in a pristine ultra-modern home and all, the counselor is in love with the beautiful Laura, a pretty kitten played by a mostly ornamental Penelope Cruz, and he wants the best for their planned life together. The counselor is doing this risky thing for her, or is at least pretending he is, which sets up one of McCarthy's larger themes, which seems to be: Women will ruin you.
The other major female presence in the film comes in the form of Cameron Diaz, clad in heavy eye makeup and tattoos, maneuvering through this seedy world like one of her cheetahs. Diaz plays Malkina (what a telegraphing name!), the obviously up-to-no-good paramour of Bardem's character. And while it's heartening to see Cameron Diaz, long ago lost to crappy romantic comedies and whatever Bad Teacher is, back in the darker tones of her early career, she is alas a lot of strutting style with not enough substance. More than anyone else in the picture, which is saying something, Diaz is hamstrung by McCarthy's clunkily formal phrasing, even putting on a strange, affected "fancy" voice for some of her chewier dialogue.
Though she certainly lends a commanding physical presence to the film, which Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have shot beautifully. It's nice to see Scott back working on a smaller, more interior scale, the intricacy and precision of his camera work on closer display. I'm not entirely sure, though, that Scott's cool, glossy finishes really work with the lofty, almost baroque tones of the script. McCarthy has crafted soliloquies about morality and free-will and sacrifice, hoary themes packaged like college lectures, whereas Scott's film glides along like something decidedly more hip and contemporary. There are moments when text and image blend harmoniously, one scene of mounting dread and desperation set hilariously, and painfully, in the blandly safe environs of a hotel's outdoor restaurant in particular, but too often the effect is discordant, the mixture off.
What the Coen brothers did so brilliantly with No Country for Old Men, a modern masterpiece, was weave McCarthy's moral and existential inquiries in with the more functional dynamics of a chase movie. It's both a breathtaking thriller and a shattering look at the futility of trying to stave off the dark — of moral rot, of death. In The Counselor, though, these big ideas are too plainly and squarely stated, they're not blended in with the same kind of thoughtful artistry. It may be unfair to compare the two, as The Counselor is a simpler script and Scott's intentions more heavily lean toward making a convetional thriller. But there are enough similarities — the same West Texas milieu, the terrifyingly efficient, unflinching violence — that I couldn't help but wish throughout The Counselor that I was getting the richer meal that No Country served up.
It's possible that Scott has a longer director's cut of this film that will fill out the places where it's too thin, the bones of McCarthy's script jutting out awkwardly. (I've heard tell of an extended cut of Kingdom of Heaven that brings neeeded vitality to that dreary epic.) But as is, The Counselor is an interesting, even beguiling, misfire. It's a simple tale of a drug deal gone bad that shoots for higher meaning with too little grace. There are splashes of greatness throughout — "The truth has no temperature" is a terrific McCarthy line, delivered silkily by Malkina as she watches her beloved cheetahs chase a jackrabbit — but ultimately the film has the strange quality of both being overcooked and under-considered. The cheetahs are pretty cool, though.