In 2007 Cormac McCarthy - whose novels include "All the Pretty Horses" and "No Country For Old Men" - won a Pulitzer Prize for painting a bleak, black apocalyptic future in "The Road."
His new screenplay for "The Counselor" is about the end of the world, too. But everyone's better dressed.
Punctuated with sadistic, almost unwatchable violence and truly bizarre attitudes about sex, it's disconcerting to watch so many industry A-listers - Michael Fassbinder, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt in front of the camera, Ridley Scott behind it - devote their considerable talents to a tale of such depravity.
The fact that it zooms onto the screen in expensive vehicles, wardrobes and modern architecture in El Paso, Texas, just adds to the horrors when a $20 million drug deal goes wrong and heads south which in this case is lawless Juarez just across the border.
The border between the wretched excesses of the U.S. and the survival mode of Mexico provides the first of McCarthy's nonstop metaphors that make the screenplay as literary as it is sordid. The message may be about uncontrollable lust and greedy capitalism reducing humans to animals, but it's delivered by characters spouting philosophical soliloquies at the most unexpected moments.
Fassbinder plays the Bentley-driving title character, an El Paso attorney living beyond his means who's counting on a one-time drug deal with a Mexican cartel to beef up the bank account. He hopes to live happily - and extremely richly - ever after with the fiancee he loves so much (Cruz) but everyone knows how these deals with the devil always wind up.
Although fiery Cruz sets the film's tone in an opening sex scene with Fassbinder, her character still eventually leaves the audience asking, What's a nice Catholic girl like you doing in a movie like this?
The counselor's drug deal puts him in touch with an upwardly mobile club and restaurant owner, masterfully played by a goofy-looking Bardem. In his Ferrari and hand-stitched loafers, he's a buffoonish yet cool blend of cynicism, confusion, and the blackest black humor.
A major source of his befuddlement is his jewel-bedecked mistress (Diaz), who keeps pet cheetahs that she likes to watch chase down jackrabbits in the desert. For her, ruthless and sexy might as well be the same word.
Then Brad Pitt moseys in, in his Stetson, pony tail and Western wardrobe, playing what's becoming a familiar role for him - the philosophical middleman doing illegal business in this amoral world.
McCarthy's characters exist on a thin moral tightrope strung between deeply flawed at one end, and truly evil at the other. By turns, seductive and revolting, efficient and helplessly out of control, what's fascinating is that you can't take your eyes off them. The performances are as magnetic as the characters are toxic.
Even with Oscar-winning director Scott adding glossy style, this is writer McCarthy's movie. And despite his matter-of-fact way of dealing with the occasional beheading every now and then, he is a moralist at heart. His eye-candy characters work through the seven deadly sins, their mixed drinks always in hand. It's Dante goes to Hollywood. Although the term "cautionary tale" keeps coming up, "The Counselor" reminds us that people get led into temptation because it's so tempting.
This is McCarthy's first credit as a producer, and I'm trying to get used to that role, too, working with local filmmakers Tom Vendetti and Robert Stone on our newest documentary project, "The Quietest Place on Earth," about Haleakala Crater. It features Hawaiian cultural practitioners, scientists, artists, musicians, poets, authors, cowboys, a cyclist, a lama and others talking about the mountain but it's also about finding that quiet, still peaceful place inside each one of us.
Sometimes I wonder if Cormac McCarthy and I live on the same planet.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org