Ridley Scott (‘Gladiator’) tried for years to get a film of American novelist Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, brilliant literary western ‘Blood Meridian’ off the ground; instead, he got to direct this curious drug-war thriller, McCarthy’s first original film script. As consolation prizes go, it’s a wooden spoon: a great writer’s pompous idea of pulp fiction, treated with stultifying seriousness by everyone else involved.
McCarthy’s disregard for screenwriting convention is compellingly reckless. He gives us an unreadable hero, no visible antagonist and a pervading sense of evil too extreme to qualify as tension. Michael Fassbender’s nameless lead character is a sharp-suited lawyer who enters into a drug deal with louche client Reiner (Javier Bardem, sporting a conker-shell coiffure that even his ‘No Country for Old Men’ character would deem a bit iffy) to pay off the Ritz-sized rock he’s just bought his naive fiancée (a wasted Penélope Cruz). Things go awry; they always do.
McCarthy is less concerned with the mechanics of his story than the nihilistic psychology propelling these people – a commendable aim defeated by the dearth of actual characters, and the superficial chrome plating of Scott’s direction.
At least Cameron Diaz gives it some welly as the gold-toothed femme fatale who may or may not hold all the cards. She uses her nether regions as a windshield squeegee in the film’s most YouTube-ready scene and keeps a poker-straight face while delivering dialogue like ‘Truth has no temperature.’ ‘The Counsellor’ is a film smart enough to craft that line, but dim enough to think it means something.