The Counselor

A few Cormac McCarthy novels been turned into movies (“No Country for Old Men” and “The Road,” notably), but “The Counselor” is the first time he’s written something directly for the screen. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think it would work better as a book. All of the most interesting things about it are related to its words, whether in the form of quasi-philosophical speeches that several characters give, or grimly poetic dialogue like this:

DRUG LORD’S HEARTLESS GIRLFRIEND (Cameron Diaz): I don’t think I miss things. I think to miss something is to hope it will come back. But it’s not coming back.

SPIKY-HAIRED FLAMBOYANT DRUG LORD (Javier Bardem): You don’t think that’s a bit cold?

DRUG LORD’S HEARTLESS GIRLFRIEND: I think truth has no temperature.

Directed by Ridley Scott, it’s typically bleak McCarthy stuff, with a Southwestern lawyer (Michael Fassbender) choosing to enter a lucrative arrangement with a Mexican drug cartel, then coming to regret that decision in the gruesome, unstoppable way that people always come to regret such decisions. The details of the plot are vague — heck, the main character doesn’t even get a name — because they don’t matter; the point is that getting involved with bad people always has negative consequences, regardless of who you are or what specific type of corruption is at play.

The doomed inevitability of it all appeals to me. I’m intrigued by stories where the characters have already sealed their fates and are trying to outrun them. (“There is no choosing,” someone says in “The Counselor.” “There is only accepting.”) So what’s the problem? Despite Fassbender’s anchoring performance and colorful turns by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, the movie is ultimately too vague and impersonal, populated not by people but by plot functions. (Brad Pitt has a few scenes as Guy Who Sets The Hero Up With The Drug Connections.) The film’s ugly tone and occasionally brutal violence reminded me of last year’s “Killing Them Softly” (but without that movie’s energy); its outlandish sexuality reminded me of “The Paperboy” (though not quite as insane). “The Counselor” does offer a stellar bad performance by Cameron Diaz, though — maybe her best bad performance in years. I can’t exactly recommend the movie, but I’m not sorry I saw it. But I’d rather read it.

C+ (1 hr., 57 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some very graphic violence, grisly images, some very strong sexuality.)