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‘The Counselor’: Take a walk on the dark side

Dark and depressing, Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" isn't something to watch on a fun Friday. Then again, some of us have fairly unique ideas on what constitutes fun. Following is the review of "The Counselor" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Cormac McCarthy is the kind of writer who causes literary critics to wear out their favorite thesaurus sites in search of just the right words of praise. Not Harold Bloom, though. The noted scholar simply gets to the point: Bloom called McCarthy’s 1985 novel “Blood Meridian” “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’ ” High praise, if plainly worded.

Which is somewhat ironic since virtually nothing about “Blood Meridian” is plainly worded. Same with much of the rest of McCarthy’s work, despite his disdain of quote marks and tendency to … pues, escribr en español. ¿Me entiendes?

Haven’t read any of McCarthy’s novels? No worries. The Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winning film “No Country for Old Men” was based on a McCarthy book. And now Ridley Scott has a film in theaters – called “The Counselor” – that is based on one of McCarthy’s original screenplays.

But if you think that moving from the page to the big screen has tempted McCarthy to tamp down his writing style, again … no worries. “The Counselor,” while being a superb example of Scott cinematic styling, is also a pretty decent representation of McCarthy esoterica.

Oh, “The Counselor” begins simply enough, with a couple snuggling the Texas afternoon away in a bed bearing sheets whiter than ice cream. That bed, by the way, sits in a hotel room that looks too expensive even for Warren Buffet.

The male of the couple is the title character, played by Michael Fassbender, an attorney who drives a Bentley, dresses in Armani and is just the kind of guy whom we readily accept as someone Penelope Cruz – who plays his bedmate – would snuggle with.

Pretty quickly, though, we discover that our counselor has a seamy side. Planning on opening a club with his shady friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), the counselor sets up a drug deal that, if successful, could earn him a cool $20 million. But this is Cormac McCarthy’s world here, so you know chances of the deal’s success are between slim and slimmer. And when things go bad, they do so inexorably and grotesquely – that latter adverb being the perfect description of a plot that includes death by gun, by garrote, by decapitation, perhaps even by cheetah – even if the cheetah in question is virtual, a tattooed character named Malkina, played by Cameron Diaz.

Yet as familiar as that storyline might sound to students of film noir, McCarthy has too exalted a literary reputation to settle for creating mere genre. Much of what happens in “The Counselor” seems deliberately, calculatedly opaque. And the characters who take the time to explain matters, such as the middle-man Westray played by Brad Pitt, tend to do so as if they were quoting Heidegger.

Some actors, such as musician Ruben Blades, can make dialogue weighty with philosophical sapience sound lucid. Others, such as Diaz, cannot. When Reiner asks Malkina is if she is “really that cold,” she answers, “The truth has no temperature.” Yes, and fish truly have no use for bicycles.

Scott does his best, keeping his film’s pace steady and employing a cinematography so crisp it made me think I was wearing 3-D glasses. But McCarthy’s descent into darkness is as unspeakable as it is absolute.