Allowing novelist Cormac McCarthy to follow up as perfect an adaptation of his literary nihilism as the Coen brothers’ masterpiece No Country For Old Men (2007) by trying his own hand at a medium he’s never worked in was perhaps a doomed venture from the start. But there’s no denying that the result is a mess that’s sometimes fascinating, sometimes entertaining, sometimes boring, and always vaguely repulsive to watch. The Counselor feels like McCarthy trying and failing in most spectacular fashion to match the Coens’ distillation of his work. He’s instead produced a draught of doom-laden neo-noir so bitter it’s hard to swallow, despite some mordant pleasure to be found in the bloody dregs left by the sluggish draining of its convoluted plot. Ridley Scott, in the meanwhile, adds or detracts little from the words of the now-legendary author with his workmanlike direction here.
The plot is almost inconsequential—deliberately so, in the tradition of film noir and No Country For Old Men’s beautiful, sinister anticlimax. That other film’s denouement works because of the Coens’ dependence on silence and visual clarity, on cinema, to generate a tension sustained throughout the film. There’s little tension in Scott and McCarthy’s excessively verbose tale of a charming alpha-male Counsellor (Michael Fassbender, solid but drained of all appeal as a hollow cypher) who’s so intent on marking his innocent, pure wife Laura (Penelope Cruz) with a big diamond that he gets involved in a drug-smuggling deal with the Mexican cartel to predictably disastrous results. Coming along for this ride into the abyss are his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem, great as always) and sleazily smooth middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt, stealing every scene he’s in), the catch being that the love of Reiner’s life is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a femme fatale to out-widow all other femmes fatale.
Malkina is the alpha-woman, a primal archetype, an all-consuming herald of doom like Anton Chigurh (Bardem in his star-making role) from No Country For Old Men (albeit much talkier than Chigurh, like everyone in this movie). She’s meant to be a terrifying construct of everything men fear about powerful women, but Diaz’s performance is so strikingly awful that she’s both unbelievable and ridiculous as the magnificent, unstoppable “hunter” of a criminal ecosystem that’s taken over the world (to drive this point home, she’s given a monologue about her pet cheetahs and the perfection of hunters). She’s also meant to be the foil to the film’s own relentless misogyny by positing a woman as the victor in this world of degenerate chaos—she out-alphas the men, who are all weak (Bardem’s lovelorn yet utterly hapless Reiner), ineffectual (the counselor), or unwisely arrogant (Westray, but Reiner and the Counsellor too). But McCarthy’s portrayal of the male fear of women is so juvenile in its palpable fear and disgust–with Reiner memorably describing his black widow Malkina mounting his car and humping his windshield, her vagina a “catfish” against the glass–that it comes across as nothing more as simple misogyny, little subversion attached.
Laura, who literally has no place in the film other than to be a downright classical damsel-in-distress so the Counsellor can be taught a life-lesson about the consequences of his actions in a heartless, unforgiving world, does nothing to improve the film’s view of women. To make things worse, Cruz also hands in a terribly awkward performance as supposedly ideal, innocent Laura, perhaps natural given the weak material she’s handed. Natalie Dormer’s brief appearance as a proxy femme fatale (what else) employed by Malkina reminds one of how much difference casting a better actor (like Dormer) in Malkina’s role might have improved the film—though probably not enough to make it a good, or wise, movie. The poor casting of its two primary female characters seems an affront, considering the bevy of excellent male actors populating even minor roles—including a welcome Ruben Blades as a big man in Juarez dispensing one of the film’s various monologues on how terrible the world is, and Dean Norris in an amusing cameo that deliberately evokes Breaking Bad.