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The Cormac McCarthy movie 'The Counselor' is beautifully hopeless

Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender are screwed in "The Counselor." Credit: Kerry Brown Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender are screwed in "The Counselor."
Credit: Kerry Brown

'The Counselor'
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

The rush to capitalize on novelist Cormac McCarthy in the wake of “No Country for Old Men” neglects one thing: McCarthy is really, almost cartoonishly bleak. “Prisoners” was recently singled out for being, for a Hollywood product, dark. But that film had hope. There is zero hope in McCarthy’s world. The baddest of the bad guys win, and the heroes — well, they aren’t heroes, or even good, but when they lose they lose in a way that’s infinitely worse than they deserve.

“The Counselor,” which McCarthy wrote (and somehow sold as a spec script), is even less happy than usual. And yet it pairs him with a big budget and a slick director, Ridley Scott. It’s not a tight fit. With “No Country,” McCarthy found directors (the Coen Brothers) who shared his precision and pitiless bemusement. Scott is a showman and a sloppy one, so concerned with look and individual parts that he often neglects the big picture. “The Counselor” generically looks a beaut, but Scott has little sense of what to do with the author’s numerous talky scenes apart from finding terrific actors to play them.

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But McCarthy is too strong a voice to not shine through anyway. Michael Fassbender is our chief fool, a high-end criminal lawyer referred to only as (yes) “The Counselor.” Needing money, in part to award his honey (Penelope Cruz) with a diamond engagement ring, he agrees to get involved with the drug trafficking trade he’s only dealt with from a legal sense.

One thing leads to another, and our anti-hero and his accomplices — a hedonistic drug lord with static electric hair (Javier Bardem) and a cucumber cool middleman (Brad Pitt) — find themselves targets of the very angry, very vengeful and utterly unforgiving forces they let loose.

Honestly, McCarthy’s plot — largely conveyed through lengthy tete-a-tetes — gets incredibly confusing (albeit the kind that will likely make sense upon a second viewing). The confusion is partly by design: We’re meant to feel as helpless as our protagonists, adrift in a quagmire over which they assumed, wrongly, they had control, and whose severity they don't fully accept until it's too late. It aims for the watchability of “The Big Sleep,” a film so tangled even its author, Raymond Chandler, couldn’t explain certain plot mysteries, but which was nonetheless compelling for having great scene after great scene.

“The Counselor” isn’t that consistent, though it’s genuinely and inspiredly lurid, building slowly into the darkest of comedies. Gruesomely OTT deaths pile up, most of them involving head trauma. Cameron Diaz — Bardem’s tattooed, bisexual boo, who may be more connected than she seems — has a scene where she “makes love” to a Ferrari windshield that’s due for end-of-year “best scene” lists. And Pitt once again reveals he’s far more magnetic when disreputable than when noble. When he realizes there’s hurtin’ on the way, Pitt’s keels over in a deep belly laugh. It’s the kind of movie where the only response to imminent, horrific death is to laugh. It won’t stop anything, but it helps.

 
 
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