Going into Ridley Scott’s drug-trade drama “The Counselor,” you’ve got a certain expectation that this could be the director delivering another of the stylish, comparatively minor-note offerings interspersed among the genre biggies over the course of his career. Not “Alien” or “Gladiator” or “Prometheus,” but a rewarding breather like the con yarn “Matchstick Men,” albeit one with an all-star cast. But with its jangly (and nerve-jangling) vibe, and the dramatically elliptical cool of its Cormac McCarthy script (the celebrated octogenarian author’s first foray into screenwriting), the film is actually quite a bit more than that. This one has more in common with Scott’s “Thelma & Louise” in the memorable way it escalates, inevitably but also unexpectedly, into a spin through wilder country, and a meditation on bigger themes.
Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous protagonist — in a literal sense, as “Counselor” is all anyone calls him as he plies his slick criminal-defense trade around greater El Paso. It seems Fassbender has channeled his “Shame” persona’s hypersexuality into something healthier, as we glean from pillow talk he shares with girlfriend Penelope Cruz, in a crazily sensual opener that toys with leaving them completely concealed under sheets. (Just in time for Halloween, a “sexy ghost” costume as a fresh alternative to “sexy witch”?)
A more defining aspect to the character is simply that he’s a refined sort who appreciates a posh lifestyle while naively failing to grasp — or denying — all that’s involved in continuing to live that way. He knows the trip to Amsterdam to handpick from the finest engagement diamonds has left him a little short, but he’s working on an investment opportunity: buying into a drug-dealing operation. He’s got vague misgivings, but he buries them. He’s repeatedly cautioned about the risks by an already connected, absurdly high-living client named Reiner (Javier Bardem, back in McCarthy territory after “No Country for Old Men”), and a canny mutual acquaintance (Brad Pitt, in cowboy hat and silver collar points). He tunes them out.
Until some of the involved parties start losing their heads in the violent final act, Scott and McCarthy don’t even seem particularly interested in a “Traffic”-detailed industry portrait. It’s as if this dirty business is being vaguely carried out in some faraway, unseen land, save for the occasional glimpse of a septic truck transporting the drugs. (Happily, we’re spared the full details.) Instead, the movie revels in painting all the mondo-bizarro everyday behavior of its supporting characters, as well as cameo players like Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, and Dean Norris (working the other side of the biz from “Breaking Bad”).
Theirs is a parade of red flags the Counselor would have to be colorblind not to see. Bardem’s Reiner is a giddy, befuddled slave to cheetah-print-tattooed Malkina (Cameron Diaz), indulging her big-cat fetish by keeping a couple as house pets. (Reiner also boasts a style sense that’s like the second coming of “Miami Vice” luxe trash, and a chaotically spiked coif that looks like a mix of bedhead and socket mishap. What is it with Bardem, McCarthy, and bad hair?) Even Reiner worries about Malkina’s sociopathic shrewdness, never mind dumbfounding episodes such as the time she impulsively used his sports car as — how to put this in a family publication? — a sex aid. It’s a flashback scene that’s beyond anything you’d ever guess, shockingly funny, and guaranteed to be infamous by Monday morning.
McCarthy’s script has to be the most satisfyingly conspicuous bit of screenwriting in recent memory. The Diaz scene aside, it’s generally more polished and less in-your-grill flashy than, say, “Django Unchained,” but no less idiosyncratically sharp. (Fassbender to Cruz, in a phone conversation throwaway: “Life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting.”) There’s even some late-game philosophical discussion of Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and the heartbreaking futility of regret that can’t be rectified. Not exactly the stuff of a film squeezed in between bigger engagements.