"The story of an ordinary man to whom chance delivers a fate that is not his." The logline for the Coen brothers' potent No Country for Old Men could apply just as aptly to author Cormac McCarthy's screenwriting debut The Counsellor, which paints a similarly nihilistic picture of one man's helplessness in the face of his own incomprehensible, self-inflicted doom.
But where the Coens were able to transplant the sparse, brutal poetry of McCarthy's prose into their script, it's ironically lost here - his screenplay is often rambling and ponderous, every conversation a philosophical deliberation, every over-written soliloquy a statement of narrative intent. As with Scott's last film Prometheus, the interesting ideas at play get swamped by speechifying, and undermined by a cast of characters who inspire little human feeling.
Michael Fassbender is the unnamed Counsellor, a successful lawyer who's blissfully in love with his new fiancée (Penelope Cruz), and riding high on the promise of a future with her. Driven by the devil on his shoulder - garishly dressed kingpin Reiner played by Javier Bardem, who was unforgettable as No Country's spectre of death Anton Chigurh - and an ill-defined sense of entitlement, he becomes involved in a drug deal with a promised return rate of 4,000%. When things go south, the collateral is significant.
Chigurh decided his victims' fates with a coin toss, and while the Counsellor is similarly undone by chance - the Mexican cartel target him thanks to a coincidental association with a client - there's a sense of inevitability about his suffering. Every tragic end is spelled out overtly in advance; after Reiner describes in great detail the cartel's preferred, particularly grisly method of beheading their enemies, it's plainly only a matter of time before we see it for ourselves. Ditto when Brad Pitt's middleman, trying to warn the Counsellor against getting involved, goes off on an overwrought rant about the cartel's penchant for making snuff films starring beautiful women.
"To see quarry killed with elegance is just moving to me," purrs Cameron Diaz's stone-cold, shark-eyed Malkina, the only hunter amidst a throng of prey. Startling though it is to watch her enthusiastically hump the windscreen of Reiner's Ferrari, it's a moment of emasculation that plays into the film's wider, dimly disquieting view of female sexuality. Cruz's Laura is a devout Catholic, markedly shy in bed, and ultimately powerless, where Malkina is morally bankrupt, sexually voracious and close to omnipotent - Reiner readily admits he is terrified of her.
Fassbender is always compelling to watch in meltdown, but his role is inert, an unchanging constant who must simply suffer; the inevitable comparisons to Breaking Bad's Walter White only emphasise the Counsellor's paper-thin arc. Even visually The Counsellor suffers by comparison, failing to capitalise on the bleak, desperate beauty of the desert on both sides of the Mexican border as Breaking Bad did so consistently.
Diaz's ferocious, vivid performance aside, The Counsellor is a strangely numbing experience. As viscerally promising as the McCarthy-Scott combination initially seemed, the result is nourishing on a purely intellectual level; it works in your head, but you never feel it in your bones.