There is an obvious standout scene in The Counselor, one you'll recognize as soon as you reach it: without giving too much away, it involves a wild-eyed Javier Bardem recounting, to his pal and fledgling criminal Michael Fassbender, a sexually-charged memory involving himself, his beloved and bewildering Cameron Diaz, and the windshield of his flashy yellow convertible. Flashing back between lines of Bardem's trembling narration to haunting snapshots of the event in question, we witness the film peak in electricity - we see the cast having a rare bit of fun on this slow crawl through the crevices of human desperation, and we see Ridley Scott's stronghold on the direction of the film loosen just a bit to give the script's weirdest material a venue worthy of its character.
It's a unique moment in the movie when it doesn't feel like the grisly, earthy realism of Scott's vision and the savory heightened reality pulsing through Cormac McCarthy's script are at odds. More often than not, the The Counselor's desert backdrop and dispirited denizens dry out the movie to the point where what we're watching, no matter how attractive, feels like it's forcing its way down. But it's the brief snippets into the otherworldly imagination of McCarthy, who writes this script as if it were a novel, that keeps us drinking up The Counselor.
We enjoy festive gulps of the characters who speak almost entirely in maxims, and the bizarre world that seems to operate in accordance with these bubbles of nihilistic wisdom. While Fassbender's male lead is scrubbed clean of any role beyond the courier of Scott's occasionally barren A-story thriller, and his fleeting accomplice Brad Pitt offers little more than a head of hair from which to shield your eyes, some of The Counselor's more inviting participants manage to really make McCarthy's poetry work. Bardem, as a criminal world fixture terrified and undone by his powerhouse lover - bouncing between our sympathies and alien fascination - lays claim to some of the movie's most engrossing scenes, the aforementioned topping the list. But the only performer who truly embodies the fantastical genus of McCarthy's writing is Diaz, offering not so much a character from a peculiar story but a creature from a bizarre planet.
As the sun around which McCarthy's solar system revolves, Diaz institutes herself as the beacon of the weird wilderness with which this script is filled. Covered in cheetah spots, sporting a gold tooth, and never wavering from her flawlessly delivered tenets of sociopathy, Diaz gives us the height of The Counselor's capabilities, the pinnacle of what would - in more generous hands - emancipate it entirely from the gritty crime thriller identity it winds up inhabiting.
Although Scott is a director with penache, he gets in the way of McCarthys' strengths on this outing. Having imbued so many science-fiction stories with the reality and humanity they needed, Scott seems to miss the point on this one: The Counselor is a real world thriller that needs more of the feel of McCarthy's fantasy.