As cold, precise and soulless as the diamonds that figure briefly in its plot, "The Counselor" is an extremely unpleasant piece of business. You could call it "Three Beheadings and No Funeral," but even that doesn't give an accurate idea of what you're in for.
The film is ably directed by the veteran Ridley Scott and features a high-powered cast headed by Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt, none of whom seem to realize that the gem they are so assiduously polishing is pure cubic zirconia and not the real thing.
That's because everyone here is the prisoner of "The Counselor's" clumsy puppet master, screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. Yes, that Cormac McCarthy, who's apparently been eager to write directly for the screen for some time but should have stifled the impulse.
For though he's a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner and has had several of his novels — including "No Country for Old Men," "The Road" and "All the Pretty Horses" — made into films, McCarthy has not done himself or his reputation any favors with this original.
This terminally bleak story of a lawyer (Fassbender) who gets in way over his head when he becomes part of a multimillion-dollar drug deal with a Mexican cartel is so entranced with its pseudo-mythic qualities that we never learn what the attorney's name is: Everyone just calls him "counselor."
A key difficulty is that this plot is so predetermined there is little point in seeing it through to the end. Both the counselor and his girlfriend, Laura (Cruz), are so bleakly fated from frame one to have the most awful things happen to them they might as well have "helpless victims" written on their sleeves.
Another problem is that McCarthy's famously enigmatic dialogue turns out to work better on the page than on the screen. Hearing lines such as "truth has no temperature" and "grief transcends value" spoken by flesh-and-blood individuals makes the words sound hollow, stilted and theatrical.
Unfortunately, McCarthy's words are at their weakest in the film's opening scene in an El Paso bedroom, where the counselor and Laura are discovered under the sheets in the middle of a marathon session of l'amour. The dialogue between them is frank, adult and so unconvincing that it's an embarrassment the film never recovers from.
After a trip to Amsterdam to buy a diamond for an engagement ring, the counselor looks up Reiner (Bardem), a nightclub owner with a passion for Versace shirts and unspecified connections to the drug trade. It's not completely clear why the counselor wants into the business, but he is not easy to dissuade.
Met next is the equally enigmatic Westray, played by Pitt and beautifully costumed by director Scott's longtime designer, Janty Yates, to look like a hipster version of Hank Williams. Westray has connections to the cartel and the same flat, oracular way of speaking as everyone else. He too tries to talk the counselor out of his chosen path, but this guy is too cocky to listen to anyone.
While all these men think they are slick operators, it soon becomes apparent that the blackest, most conniving heart in the group belongs to Reiner's girlfriend, Malkina, played with convincingly frigid nastiness by Diaz.
The owner of two pet cheetahs and enamored enough of the animal's prowess in killing to have its markings tattooed on her back, Malkina is such a creature of pure evil she scares a priest out of his confession booth and in general makes Cruella de Vil seem as harmless as Mary Poppins.
While all these people are trading bleak and inscrutable McCarthyisms, an ancient septic tank truck is making its way to the United States from Mexico. Except it's not really a septic tank truck; its insides contain the drug shipment that the counselor has his heart set on.
The movements of this truck may not sound very exciting, but you will find yourself longing for its presence because it replaces the toxic characters whose escapades end in misery, pain and, yes, no fewer than three beheadings. The milk of human kindness does not flow through "The Counselor's" veins, not even close.
MPAA rating: R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun