No question about it, the best feature of “The Counselor,” the borderlands drug drama written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, is the hair. It’s the most compelling, watchable, risk-taking element of the entire cursed production.
There’s Javier Bardem’s startling scared-porcupine coiffure, Brad Pitt’s shoulder-length tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Cameron Diaz’s migraine-inducing short/long, brown/blond layer cake. They all play characters involved in the smuggling trade. Their hair warns us that they are capable of anything.
At the more restrained end of things, big-time attorney Michael Fassbender wears a conservative Ivy League cut, and his kittenish fiancée Penelope Cruz favors flirtatious curls: regulation looks for a couple of squares far out of their depth.
As for the story connecting these characters, I throw my hands up. I read McCarthy’s opaque, allusive screenplay, then watched the film. Beyond the idea that freelancers shouldn’t try to cut in on the drug cartels’ action, I confess I scarcely understand it in either form. A legendary filmmaker and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author tackle exotic locales, twisted crime and a man in over his head, and somehow produce two hours of baffling tedium.
Everyone looks intense and sexy and speaks in epigrams or windy philosophical monologues. Setups, introductions, inciting incidents? Forget about it. This is a crime drama of high, abstract artistic aspirations — “Scarface” pulp spliced with “The Tree of Life” abstraction.
Bardem’s character, Reiner, a shady, flamboyant guy, tells Fassbender’s, a nameless lawyer eager to dabble in the lucrative drug traffic on the Ciudad Juarez/El Paso border, “I don’t speak in arraignable phrases.” Few of the other players converse intelligibly, either. What they do say is telegraphic, full of threat and maddeningly indrawn, as if they’re worried that clear speaking will bring the feds down on them. Something “important” is going on but the movie only hints at what that might be. Fancy cars, mansions, Uzis, drugs, it’s a blighted world … something something.
Butting against these lyrically vague passages are procedural scenes following $20 million worth of drugs in the belly of a grimy septic tank truck (symbolism!). This sort of thing can work on the page, but stripped of McCarthy’s poetic prose it rumbles and wheezes.
Diaz channels Courtney Love as Malinka, a femme fatale who has everyone’s number. Her pet cheetahs chase down hares as the predatory Diaz observes with field glasses and sips cocktails (symbolism!). How bad-ass is she? She has a gold incisor and cheetah spots tattooed down her back. Somehow the wardrobe department restrained themselves from giving her an eyepatch and a hook.
Not convinced she’s bad news? Wait for the scene when she performs an autoerotic act on a Ferrari’s windshield that gives new meaning to the term “wiper fluid.” Scott’s visual imagery is self-consciously chic and glossy, forced rather than forceful. He’s become clumsy around character-centered drama, only responding to his actors when they’re doing something photogenic. Thus, Fassbender weeps until saliva strings dangle from his mouth as the doomed sucker from polite society who only wanted to buy his girlfriend a big diamond. Of course, the jeweler did warn him that the giant sparkler he chose “is a cautionary stone.” No idea what that means, but it sounds significant.
As in Scott’s previous fiasco, “Prometheus,” the capable Fassbender plays a closed-off character saddled with a murky agenda. Only this time he’s a ninny, not an android. Fassbender comes through, at least as much as any actor could do playing a character who makes only bad decisions, does unheroic things and gets punished relentlessly. The real crime in “The Counselor” isn’t what the Mexican mafia does to interlopers, it’s what the film does to its cast. And its audience.