'The Counselor' has impressive performances but a confusing plot

'The Counselor' boasts an excellent cast, but the story based on Cormac McCarthy's screenplay isn't always easy to decipher.

Kerry Brown/20th Century Fox/AP
'The Counselor' stars Brad Pitt (l.) and Michael Fassbender (r.).

Somewhere deep into "The Counselor," I found myself mesmerized by a metaphysical monologue from one of the characters – someone who sounded strikingly similar to my college philosophy professor – and trying to figure out exactly what he meant, and how it related to the person he was saying it to.

But then I realized I had more basic questions, as in, wait, who IS this guy? Where did he come from? Did I miss something?

If that kind of experience would bother you, be forewarned. There's lots and lots of talk in Ridley Scott's latest film, which boasts a high-powered cast and also the first original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy. But that talk doesn't always clarify what's happening onscreen. Sometimes, it seems like it's coming from another movie, or somewhere else entirely.

One connection that will be obvious to all, though, is with "No Country For Old Men," the 2007 Oscar winner based on a novel by McCarthy. That film also dealt with the harsh Texas border region and a drug deal gone wrong – way, way wrong – and the violent consequences of greed and foolish risk. It also featured Javier Bardem in a crazy haircut.

Here the haircut is different – spiky, and accompanied by rose-tinted shades and a wardrobe favoring paisley — but Bardem is still entertaining (has he ever been less than totally charismatic?) It is he who easily scores the biggest laughs of the film. Laugh hard, because from there, the story gets grim.

Our main protagonist is the Counselor, played by the excellent Michael Fassbender (on a roll this month, with his terrific work in "12 Years a Slave"). He's a well-off lawyer who, you'd think, has everything – nice car, nice house, good looks, lovely girlfriend (Penelope Cruz, indeed lovely).

Soon we see Counselor buying his girlfriend a diamond ring. The diamond dealer is also quite the philosopher, as it happens.

That's the only hint we get of why this man would dip into a dangerous drug deal with some clearly shady associates, including nightclub owner Reiner (Bardem) and the mysterious Westray (Brad Pitt, excellent too, with long, oily hair.) Maybe McCarthy is telling us that, in Westray's words, you don't know someone until you know what they want. Or something like that.

Then there's Malkina, played by Diaz as if she were a James Bond villainess. (She even has a gold tooth or two.) It's a vampy performance, and sometimes humorous – as in a scene in a church confessional – but it doesn't quite fit the tenor of the film. Especially when she utters some of McCarthy's more philosophical lines.

Not that you won't be entertained. There's impressive cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Also impressive: the outlandish method Scott and McCarthy come up with to kill a prominent character. Yes, his ghoulish demise is hinted at earlier, but that only makes it scarier when it happens.

There's even a delicious reference to "Body Heat," and a warning from young Mickey Rourke. And for animal lovers, there are some gorgeous cheetahs on hand. What do they signify?

Still pondering that.

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