"You remind me of someone who's dead," says Cameron Diaz, hard and emotionless, severe asymmetrical hair, cheetah spots tattooed on her shoulder and down her back. She's speaking to her current lover, Javier Bardem -- "current" because this woman is a walking, talking case of foreshadowing and metaphor. She isn't the type to miss things or people when they're gone. And becoming gone -- she owns two real cheetahs and lets them chase other animals for sport -- seems like a serious possibility in her presence. For his part, Bardem is both bewitched by and seemingly terrified of her (she once had sex with his car and made him watch) and he's right.
Diaz's character isn't the only difficult person in this Ridley Scott-directed, Cormac McCarthy-written epic misery-poem. She's just the least concerned about the death that's about to happen all around her. And given that half the characters in this movie are involved with brutal drug cartels that's saying something. The story involves a successful, nominally corrupt Texas lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who's gotten in too deep with a drug deal brokered by nightclub owner Bardem, and because this is from a director not unacquainted with serious material both on-screen and off, and the writer responsible for The Road and No Country For Old Men, it's not a matter of if the darkness will overtake everyone but when.
Unlike those other McCarthy tales, where familial love battled hopelessness and an upright lawman confronted the moral abyss and there was a crackle of tension propelling the action, this broken-souled "thriller" moves at a strangely quiet and creeping pace, drained of everything but dread. When the first mention of decapitation arrives, you know there's one coming soon. When another character brings up snuff films, it's inevitable that eventually one of these folks is going to have a very unfortunate last act. Horrible outcomes are a given -- and they are given slowly.
These ugly, thudding resolutions, empty and hollow, feel almost post-sorrowful, as though everyday grief were a luxurious option. And they're served strangely, on a bed of poetic, philosophical dialogue, miniature pop-up speeches about despair and the futility of hope, a world where literary fiction becomes everyday conversation.
All right, yes, it's kind of smug on that front, actually, demanding to be considered important. And it divorces the proceedings from the grittiness films like this usually try to fake (in the service of "keeping it real"). But its success lies in the overall effect of McCarthy's prose-based conversations turning the actors into their own chorus, commenting on the action while it happens. And usually before it happens. The blueprint for crime/drug thrillers almost never allows any such thing. That makes it an oddity worth listening to, if not taking to your heart. It wont remind you other movies like it, but it might remind you of something fascinatingly dead.