‘The Counselor’: Stellar cast mired in baffling story

In his screenplay for “The Counselor,” Cormac McCarthy leaves out the stuff that usually supplies the pleasure in a crime film: the planning, the suspense, conventional scenes of reward and resolution. And there’s only one car chase.

This approach has potential; the author of “All the Pretty Horses” and “No Country for Old Men” is one of America’s best living writers, a brilliant stylist whose vision of the world brings us through different visions of hell.

In “The Counselor,” by stripping away those pleasures, McCarthy mostly leaves the hell.

Michael Fassbender plays the title character, an El Paso lawyer who has made some kind of unwise bargain with a corrupt businessman, Reiner (spiky-haired Javier Bardem, a joy to watch). They will execute a deal together, then the counselor will retire to the arms of his fiancee (Penelope Cruz).

Reiner has a girlfriend named Malkina, a fearsome type who likes watching their pet cheetahs stalk rabbits on the Texas plains. She is played by Cameron Diaz, an interesting choice that doesn’t quite score as a piece of counter-casting.

As the different pieces of the puzzle are laid out end-to-end, McCarthy concocts some torrid dialogue scenes (yep, dialogue scenes can be red-hot). We hear snatches of eloquent philosophy from unlikely sources, including members of the Mexican drug cartel.

Some of the best talk comes from a shady operator played by Brad Pitt, who gives the counselor information that ought to warn him off this bad idea. Pitt has only a handful of scenes, but he’s terrific — he might almost be an experienced movie star warning newbie Michael Fassbender about the dangers of Hollywood.

It’s cool that “The Counselor” is a language-driven movie. But how does that suggest Ridley Scott as a director for this material? Scott is an image guy, and although he likes the vulgarity and flash of criminal decadence, he smothers the wicked conversations in unappealing close-ups. This flat-footed style doesn’t serve the gorgeous words especially well.

Not does it help fill in the baffling storyline. This is obviously intentional. McCarthy and Scott are focused on showing a world that offers no forgiveness or redemption for bad deeds. (Even a priest gets up and walks out of the confessional.) Plot is just a way to get there.

Still, a few lifelines might’ve helped. As it is, “The Counselor” is a series of intriguing scenes, floating around in a thick cloud of the evil that men (and women) do.

“The Counselor” (two and a half stars)

Novelist Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott make an uneasy couple for this story of an El Paso lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who goes over to the dark side. The movie’s got gorgeous language and a couple of terrific supporting turns by Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem, yet Scott’s flat-footed style and the baffling plotline create a tough experience.

Rated: R for violence, language, subject matter.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Pacific Place, Sundance, Woodinville, Blue Fox, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.

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