The primary characteristic of Cormac McCarthy's novels, it has seemed to me, is terseness. His plots and scenes come along bluntly and quickly, like a swift punch to the windpipe, his characters speak barely at all, and frequently only state absolutely essential facts when they do. So why, oh why, is The Counselor, McCarthy's first original screenplay at the pixieish age of 80, so bogged down with scenes packed with characters who Don't. Shut. The fuck. Up? Mournful prose poetry put into the mouths of characters delivering philosophical monologues are also characteristic of McCarthy, but only as flavoring, never as a main course. At times it feels like there's nothing else in this movie but philosophically dense, stylistically overwrought speeches, and this is the first and most dire symptom of a screenplay that proves most conclusively that being a tremendously great writer of narrative prose requires a different skill set than being a great, or even semi-competent, writer of movie scripts.

The content of The Counselor - using the word "plot" to describe it begs the question - follows an unnamed lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who needs some fast money, and so decides to go in for just this one deal! with a big-time drug smuggler, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and his business associate Westray (Brad Pitt). As this situation is going along nice and smoothly, one of the counselor's imprisoned clients, Ruth (Rosie Perez), asks him to bail out her son for a measly $400. What neither of them know is that her son (Richard Cabral) is obliquely connected with the cartel shipping the drugs that the counselor's money is attached to, and that he's being targeted in this capacity by a couple of henchmen hired by Reiner's girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) to steal the shipment. When this has been successfully done, the cartel bigwigs quickly discover the connection between the dead Mexican boy and the counselor, and immediately begin the process of exact vengeance upon him, Westray, and Reiner, endangering the life of the counselor's new fiancée Laura (Penélope Cruz).

When one puts it that way, it looks so neat! And so perfectly in-line with McCarthy's themes; objectively speaking, the counselor does none of the things that the cartel punishes him for, but it's the easiest thing in the world to read this as the wages of making that one decision to get involved in one drug deal: start off done an immoral road, and that's where you'll stay forever and always, suggests the story, with the author's characteristic nihilistic pessimism.

Good for the simple, neat version. In reality, The Counselor is a sprawling fantasia of narrative loops and spurious moments and big showstopper scenes that are of exactly zero use on a narrative or psychological level (that infamous scene everybody knows about where Cameron Diaz's character rubs her genitalia on a windshield? Cut it out and the movie would be functionally identical, if a bit less interesting to discuss). Scenes abut scenes in a freakishly modular way, leaving the film absolutely nothing that resembles "flow", just an assemblage of events that don't necessarily need to take place in the order in which they occur. It's jaw-dropping, messy, tedious. In its stripped-down version, the story of The Counselor is something that has been told in approximately this way dozens of times, so that there is nothing of novelty left to it. In its ungainly, inchoate form as it exists, it's as if the film is actively trying to compensate for this fact.

All of this could, I suspect, have been made delightfully kinetic and fucked-up and watchable; it would never be a good screenplay, but it good be an enthusiastically trashy, exciting movie anyway. Frankly, I think that its present director, Ridley Scott, could even have been the one to make that film, though it would have required a decisive break from his recent work and a return to the glitzier style of his now more than a decade-old Hannibal and Black Hawk Down. But that Ridley Scott didn't show up at all, and if I was able to get 600 words into a review of a movie by a major director without mentioning that director's name, it's for the most depressing reason imaginable: this is a very boringly-directed film. Sure, it's handsome enough, and Scott and the ever-reliable cinematographer Dariusz Wolski find a few really striking visuals (though it's probably telling that the absolute best images in the film, both in terms of their beauty and their creativity, are found in the film's somewhat spurious early detour to Amsterdam), though the ever-reliable editor Pietro Scalia appears to have little interest in joining the visuals in any inspired way. You would never say of The Counselor, "this was assembled by untalented people".

You might very well, however, say, "this was assembled by talented hacks", for the whole thing lacks much of anything that resembles aesthetic spark or vitality. It's certainly Scott's most overall anonymous work of directing since his ghastly career nadir of A Good Year, in 2006, in which he challenged himself by proving that you can make the French wine country look beautiful at sunset. In a film where the script is such a bent mess of half-formed ideas that it needed, urgently, a strong hand at the wheel to keep things alive, it's deadly that Scott's main decision seems to have stemmed from the believe that a depressing script needs to be treated somberly, and so the thing is just a grim-faced slog.

This is bad for the deranged, violent detours of the plot, but worst of all for the actors, not one of whom emerges with their dignity fully intact (Cruz is, by far, the healthiest survivor). Fassbender is completely lost in his accent, San Antonio by way of County Cork, and Diaz is hilariously awful and miscast as a sexually omnivorous femme fatale wearing the worst dresses I have seen in a movie in 2013; they both feel like they're children play-acting a druggy noir rather than professionals in a major film. Bardem (with yet another weirdo hairdo) and Pitt at least feel like humans, though humans who have a rough time managing McCarthy's florid dialogue, and in Pitt's case especially, the film's refusal to let be very amusing in any way.

It's such a miserable film, and not just because it is so punishingly severe about what it does to its characters (and with a fairly unmissable slice of misogyny to boot, stalled as it is in an unbelievably straightforward Madonna/Whore dichotomy with Laura and Malkina). It's miserable because it's so fucking uninspired and draggy and generic, no matter how much talent is involved in the cast and crew. I gather that it has become a much-hated film, and I almost wish I felt that way about it; as it stands, there's so much steely blandness that I can't even work up enough enthusiasm to loathe this. Boredom unfortunately, isn't active enough to engender that kind of passion.

4/10