Whispered words open The Counselor: "Are you awake?" And even though they are whispered most fetchingly, by Penelope Cruz from between the sheets, by the end of this sleekly savage film you may well feel as if you're caught in a nightmare.
That should come as no surprise given that its screenplay was written by Cormac McCarthy. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Road and author of the novel that was the basis for the multiple-Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, McCarthy has plenty of experience seeing his bleakly beautiful novels rendered well on film. He conceived The Counselor as a screenplay rather than basing it on a book, and the result is blessed (if blessing exists in McCarthy's world) with a terrific cast and the perfect director in Ridley Scott, who knows a little something about creating almost unbearable tension on screen.
The Counselor has an abundance of that. The otherwise nameless title character, played by the busy and talented Michael Fassbender, is a lawyer in El Paso, handsome and charming and too cocky for his own good. He is crazy in love with Laura (Cruz), and the feeling is mutual. But the counselor is having an unspecified spot of financial trouble — whose scale can be guessed at by the fact he can still swing a 3.9-carat diamond ring for Laura — and he thinks he can fill his coffers with just one big drug deal. In and out, no problem.
His inspiration for that is the large living enjoyed by his friends Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Reiner runs a posh restaurant, plus some sidelines; the two of them live in a spectacular house and throw the parties Gatsby would have had if more beautiful people went out nearly naked in the 1920s.
Reiner is the polar opposite of Bardem's terrifying Anton Chighur in No Country — here, with an expensively zany wardrobe and a black-dyed Bart Simpson 'do, he's motor-mouthed, goofy, even clownish, but sinister nevertheless. Malkina not only keeps a brace of cheetahs as pets, she wears their spots tattooed across her long, sinewy back — she's a fellow gorgeous, lethal predator.
The drug deal the counselor wants in on involves three 55-gallon drums full of cocaine bricks, about $20 million worth. The drums are soldered shut and tucked for transport into the tank of a truck that's used to haul the contents of septic tanks.
Reiner warns the counselor repeatedly not to risk involvement, and so does his other connection, Westray (Brad Pitt). Shaggy and clad in rumpled Western gear, Westray blends into the El Paso setting, but he's a bigger player than he appears. The counselor, however, is a man who cannot resist a dare.
Some of The Counselor is mordantly witty, even laugh-out-loud funny; a scene in which Reiner recalls the time Malkina had sex with his Ferrari (you read that right — not in the Ferrari, with it) is hilariously raunchy.
But after the counselor takes the plunge and that truck wends its malodorous way to Chicago, hijacked repeatedly by various factions, the consequences of his easy deal become more horrific than he could have imagined. Blood will spurt and heads will roll, and those are not figures of speech.
The Counselor explodes with violence that is grisly, but not gratuitous: McCarthy has a point to make. Wars create monsters, and the drug war is no exception. From the cartel jefe and the dabbling dealer to the millions of consumers, those who believe they have no blood on their hands are wrong.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.