It was Saint-Exupery's Little Prince who declared: "It's a little lonely in the desert." That's a notion writer Cormac McCarthy knows well, his later novels often taking place in dusty Western locales among those isolated from society. But what's also even more true in McCarthy's work is what the snake replies to the Little Prince: "It is also lonely among men." McCarthy's characters look for meaning and completion in others, occasionally find it, but ultimately find humanity at large — and often themselves — to be too self-centered and deeply flawed to overcome the fundamental solitude of existence.
That's certainly true in The Counselor, McCarthy's first produced screenplay written directly for the big screen. The pulpy story — at its core a fairly simple one of a drug deal gone horribly awry for a newbie to North American drug trafficking — gives the author ample opportunity to explore the notion that given the opportunity to allow our inherent greed to run rampant, there's little that can save us from the consequences of our own worst inclinations.
Michael Fassbender plays that newbie, the unnamed Texas attorney referred to in the movie's title. He's a man who, judging by the Bentley he drives and the impressive diamond he purchases at the start of the film to propose to Laura (Penelope Cruz), is doing pretty well for himself. But he's also a man of enormous appetites, and despite finally meeting a woman capable of getting him to abandon his womanizing past, his lust for money isn't so easily quelled.
So he finds his way into a multimillion-dollar drug deal with his old pal Reiner (Javier Bardem, for the second time sporting a ludicrous haircut in a McCarthy adaptation), and Reiner's liaison with contacts on the Mexican side of the trade, Westray (played with sleazy pragmatism by Brad Pitt). The self-confident air that presumably aids the counselor in the courtroom belies a deep naivete about the realities of the venture he's embarking on. And when things go wrong, they go very, very wrong.
It's a work filled to overflowing with subtext and thoughtful, if bleak, ruminations on our true natures — on the inescapability of evil, the pointlessness of grief, the finality of death. Why, then, does Ridley Scott's film of the material — despite an immersive central performance from Fassbender, and McCarthy's towering talent for arranging words like meticulous and austere flower arrangements — ultimately feel so empty?
Part of the issue may be that Scott, in his later work, has made a habit of keeping his subjects at a kind of lifeless distance. While he's always had a knack for well-placed restraint, for much of the past decade that has translated into films of consummate professionalism that lack bite. While The Counselor is gorgeously staged and constructed, Scott's slick, straightforward style never quite meshes with the harsh grit of McCarthy's observations on the human condition.
The world McCarthy creates is not quite our own. Characters speak in openly philosophical terms that aren't quite natural, often ending conversations with the sort of meditative aphorisms that are more often written than spoken aloud. When Reiner points out the emotional chill in a viewpoint expressed by his scheming and severe girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), she responds, "I think the truth has no temperature."
There's an element of the surreal in that approach, and McCarthy uses that unreal world, along with a generous helping of the blackest humor, to illuminate the harsh and unfunny realities of our own lives. But Scott's formality has a tendency to handcuff the more fanciful elements on the page.
If The Counselor is a failure, it's at least a fascinating one. Much of the reason for that is time spent in the theater examining why the film isn't working. The plot doesn't provide enough distraction to hold those thoughts at bay, and this is where McCarthy betrays himself to an extent. The boilerplate pulp of his story lacks much in the way of the unexpected and is ultimately an insufficient delivery mechanism for the profundity his work aspires to, like caviar dolloped atop a stale saltine.