Fans of celebrated author Cormac McCarthy, best known for No Country for Old Men and The Road, will know what to expect in The Counselor, his first produced screenplay: gritty nihilism set against the Texas-Mexico border, as an otherwise "innocent" man finds himself overwhelmingly in over his head in a situation beyond his control. And on that front, the film doesn't disappoint. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is never given a proper name, but he's getting involved on a drug deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem) that includes various other schemers, including middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt) and Reiner's lover, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). From there, it's a series of dirty dealings, each more brutal than the last.
However, this isn't one of McCarthy's novels, which benefit from his spare phrasing and exact diction. His script here is wordy, with characters explaining their thoughts and launching into eloquent monologues about the futility of life, but nothing they say sounds like it comes from real human beings. A part of this does come from the script - McCarthy is perhaps best on film when his texts are interpreted by another artist, a la the Coen Brothers - but it's also the fault of director Ridley Scott. Scott, of course, is a talented director, but he seems mismatched with this material: his camera always remains close to its subjects, never exposing the vast expanse of the landscape this narrative takes place in. Though there's not much on the page, he doesn't do any favors to the characters either; again, they feel only like agents of bleak violence rather than real people. Though it's not nearly as stylized, The Counselor is like the Western cousin of Only God Forgives: nihilistic violence for the sake of nihilistic violence.
Another issue: the film's moments that should be played for camp, but are instead presented totally straight-faced. If you've read any review for this film - based on the film's box office, I'm guessing a fair number of you haven't seen it - then you know what I'm talking about: Malkina, spread-eagled across the windshield of yellow Ferrari, humping the glass to the aghast expression on Reiner's face. It's a moment that is almost comically out-of-place, a feeling enhanced by Bardem's reading of the line "it was…gynecological."
But this brings me to odd case of Diaz as Malkina. Like Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy last year, she is simultaneously perfect for this role and absolutely wrong for it. When production began on this film, Angelina Jolie was attached for this role; given the confident sexuality Malkina displays, she would have fit well with that aspect. But can imagine Jolie, at this point in her career, doing a scene as trashy as the aforementioned? I can't. Diaz, on the other hand, has afforded herself that opportunity. She's not the powerful box office draw that she once was, which gives her the opportunity to take on more adventurous, risqué roles. She takes on Malkina with aplomb, with an eagerness to fill the role of the film's femme fatale. Unfortunately, though, she just doesn't convince: she never really feels dangerous, just eccentric and delightfully depraved. To bring it back to the Kidman comparison, having sex with a car isn't on the same level as pissing on Zac Efron and masturbating for John Cusack.
It's a shame that Diaz doesn't live up to the role, especially since I feel a little foolish for having projected her as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for this. Diaz is an actress who, when she shines, she's absolutely radiant. But when the role isn't quite right, she can't salvage it with an interesting performance. The Counselor is a film that can't be salvaged, either.
The Counselor: C+