By Christopher Lawrence
Las Vegas Review-Journal
“You don’t think this is an odd thing to tell me?”
It’s a question posed by an attorney known only as The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) to Reiner (Javier Bardem), a flashy nightclub owner, after he delights in sharing a particularly graphic, erotic, yet ultimately hilarious yarn.
Reiner’s story is, in fact, a very odd thing to tell someone. But, then, “The Counselor” is full of little else but odd things, many of which are told to people against their will.
With his first screenplay, Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”) and director Ridley Scott have unleashed what’s either a soon-to-be-legendary misfire destined for a midnight cult audience or a work of staggering genius that operates on a level too advanced for me to grasp.
I’m leaning toward the former, but it’s pretty much a pick ’em.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around The Counselor’s efforts to make some quick cash through a drug deal facilitated by Reiner and a verbose middleman named Westray (Brad Pitt), who looks like the frontman for an alt-country collective.
Both go out of their way to warn him of the dangers involved. But, either despite or because of his recent engagement to the lovely Laura (Penelope Cruz), The Counselor goes through with the deal, with predictably disastrous results.
Set mostly in El Paso, Texas, with side trips to Amsterdam, London, Chicago and Boise, Idaho, the sexually charged crime drama is a little bit “Traffic,” a little bit FX’s “The Bridge,” and a whole lot bonkers.
“The Counselor’s” real highlight — or lowlight, depending upon your point of view — is Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz).
First seen chasing a cheetah on a horse — she’s on the horse, the cheetah isn’t; that would be too weird even for this — Malkina sports a gold tooth, gleaming silver nails and jewelry the size of small birds.
She enters a confessional to quiz a priest on all the dirty sex stuff he hears, tries to seduce Cruz’s Laura while lounging mostly naked by a swimming pool, and at one point, the focus of Reiner’s aforementioned “odd thing,” she makes love to the windshield of a Ferrari.
Let that sink in for a minute.
It’s the sort of role Madonna would have played, or at least fought vigorously for, back in the day. But Malkina is given a run for her seemingly bottomless supply of money by Reiner.
With his finger-in-a-light-socket hair, he’s a Versace cowboy who’s never met a dozen colors he doesn’t like. Reiner literally lives in a glass house. Together, they’re like the lyrics to Lorde’s “Royals” sprung to life.
With all that going on, it’s no surprise that they completely overshadow The Counselor. Although when things get really, really bad, in ways that are too muddled to comprehend, Fassbender gets to weep so violently he snots himself. Nearly two hours worth of emotion are condensed into that one scene.
Of all the many things “The Counselor” is, natural isn’t one of them. But it’s difficult to sound anything like a human being while delivering such throwaway lines as “I never knew my parents. They were thrown out of a helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean when I was 3.”
McCarthy’s dense dialogue and peculiar rhythms leave pretty much everyone at one point or another to sound as though they’re reciting a language they don’t fully comprehend. Portions of the script may as well have been written in Aramaic. And there are long, curious stretches where, gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you what was happening or to whom.
Odds are, it involved either sex or money.
But I’d happily go back for some further investigation.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org