Steeped in the heat of the desert and laden with existential musings, The Counselor is a gripping movie-length lesson on why crime doesn’t pay, particularly in Mexico. Following Fassbender’s titular character as he dips a toe into the drug trade and proceeds to get dragged way out of his depth, it’s uncompromisingly bleak but always captivating.
The script, from acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy (his first original screenplay), is dripping with his trademark nihilism. It’s wordy, heavy on monologues, and occasionally some of his writerly dialogue can sound a bit clunky, but for the most part the actors sell it as a natural part of the verbose, sweaty world these characters inhabit.
Pitt is well within his comfort zone as a middleman with cowboy affectations, and Bardem excels as a flamboyant kingpin, but it’s Diaz who has the most larger-than-life character, a predatory femme fatale who, in the movie’s best scene, has intimate relations with a car. Ultimately though she’s the weak link, trying out her best scowl but struggling to convey menace, or convincingly deliver some of her trickier lines.
The details of the drug deal that drives the plot are kept somewhat murky, presumably because McCarthy and director Ridley Scott are more interested in the moral repercussions of the drug trade, and the consequences for those involved. The go-for-broke bleakness of the whole thing seems to have re-energized Scott, who manages to avoid the dramatic inertia of his recent films.
There’s some portentous foreshadowing that’s laid on a bit too thick, and some unsubtle visual metaphors (cocaine is shipped in a sewage tanker, Diaz is adorned with tattooed leopard spots), but they don’t detract from the thrust of the film. It’s a grim, sometimes sickening story, but it’s hard to look away from.