In his tragedies from "Titus Andronicus" to "Macbeth," William Shakespeare subjected his ill-fated characters to all sorts of horrible depravity. Sons baked in pies. Duplicitous daughters. Murder-plotting wives.

So it's no shocker that "The Counselor" -- a thinking person's thriller by novelist Cormac McCarthy, who has been hailed as a Shakespeare of the American West -- is awash in blood, foreshadowing, manipulative characters and shattering consequences.

But what is surprising is how this glossy and depressing production with its top-shelf cast -- Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz -- winds up as fatally flawed as one of the Bard's lead characters.

With all that talent, expectations are high, especially after the Coen brothers did such a stellar job of adapting McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" for the screen. What's delivered, though, is an overstated, overbearing bummer. Thankfully, this downer isn't opening over the holidays.

That's not to say there aren't a number of individual elements that make it stand out -- dialogue that begs to be remembered and quoted, another Oscar-worthy turn from Bardem with his high-voltage hair and flashy clothing, and director Ridley Scott's beautifully orchestrated scenes of graphic carnage.


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But the plot about a hotshot lawyer -- called only the Counselor (Fassbender) -- whose partnership with nightclub owner Reiner (Bardem) circuitously leads him and his sexy love interest, Laura (Cruz), into the take-no-prisoners world of drug cartels is viciously bleak. What's worse, it's downright obvious.

While Shakespeare understood the importance of nuance in foreshadowing, McCarthy's screenplay all but screams it at us. When one character yammers about unfathomable acts of violence, we suspect that said acts will happen. They do.

Scott, ("Gladiator," "Prometheus") cagily plays on that sense of dread with the moody visual help of director of photography Dariusz Wolski. But they can't overcome the fact that the action is all but blatantly telegraphed, even as McCarthy keeps shuttling his characters around from Amsterdam to Mexico.

Neither can Diaz, who lands the juicy role of Malkina, a morally corrupt predator with an insatiable appetite for money. She sinks her talons into Reiner -- who lusts after and wisely fears her -- then slinks around seeking fresh prey. In early scenes Diaz, with her two-toned hair and showy wardrobe, has a heyday with the femme fatale part, especially when she hangs out with Laura and the contrasts between the two become glaringly apparent.

Diaz's portrayal is undermined by a silly bit when Malkina confesses her sins to a priest (Edgar Ramirez, utterly wasted). It's an embarrassing attempt at levity that should have wound up on the cutting room floor.

In its place, you wish McCarthy would have expanded more on the roles of supporting characters -- from Rosie Perez's incarcerated mother, who is a client of the Counselor, to Brad Pitt's more substantial part as the Counselor's contact person.

This movie just isn't all that interested in them. It's too preoccupied with creating a dismal and tortured view of what the world can become when we make bad decisions. The result is an exhaustingly downbeat experience.

So just when is the next showing of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2"?

'The counselor'

* *

Rating: R (for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes