By the looks of it, “The Counselor,” a rancid, ultimately sodden crime thriller, was made to appeal to several audiences, among them fans of the cinematic stylings of Ridley Scott; acolytes of cult author Cormac McCarthy; and admirers of the Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who between the 2011 drama “Shame” and the opening sequence of this movie, has become Hollywood’s go-to-sex-guy for explicit between-the-sheets adventures.
In that naughty, teasingly graphic scene with Penelope Cruz, “The Counselor,” which Scott directed from a screenplay by McCarthy, supposedly lays its cards on the table: This is a movie that will pull no punches when it comes to sex (and, later, violence), but will instead confront viewers with frank, uncomfortably straightforward portrayals of the darkest parts of human nature.
Sadly, the filmmakers then dispense with any shreds of honesty they may have once aspired to by cutting to a shot of Cameron Diaz, gorgeous in magic-hour amber light, riding a horse while a cheetah runs alongside behind her. As Malkina, the silver-clawed, gold-saber-toothed femme fatale (who, in case you missed the subtext, also has a string of leopard-like spots tattooed down her back), Diaz is just one of the tawdry characters who populate the South Texas nether-world of “The Counselor,” a sewage-soaked demimonde that is as confusing as it is spiritually compromised.
It seems that Fassbender’s title character — attorney at large to all manner of lowlifes — is in the midst of a shady deal involving Malkina’s boyfriend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and a shadowy figure named Westray (Brad Pitt). Just what the deal is and how it all goes horribly wrong, it seems, are so tiresome — and their moral universe so much more richly limned in “Breaking Bad” — that McCarthy felt it necessary to gussy it up with windy, Shakespearian speeches, wearying conversational dead ends and lots of gratuitous swipes at female sexual appetites, which are clearly a source of enduring and unresolved anxiety for the poor guy.
Isn’t McCarthy — author of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” — supposed to be the master of macho toughness and spare stylistic control? You wouldn’t know it from this self-consciously nasty piece of borderland noir, in which his familiar tropes by now look hackneyed and pathetic. “The Counselor” treats viewers to at least two baroquely staged beheadings and countless courtly disquisitions on morality, mortality, regret and heaven knows what else. It’s an actor’s paradise, all this poetic, run-on musing, but it results in a movie that, despite its strenuous efforts to appear hardened and sexy and sleek, is unforgivably phony, talky and dull.
It may be that “No Country for Old Men” was the perfect marriage of mannerisms: McCarthy’s pseudo-depth and the Coen brothers’ reliably deadpan delivery system. With Scott’s more florid hand at the helm, the weaknesses and excesses stand out in sharp relief, never more so than when the miscast Diaz delivers her carefully practiced arias to predation and Darwinian lust. “The Counselor” must have looked great on paper, but you can’t believe a word of it.