IT'S PERHAPS BEST to think of the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) not as a lawyer but as an investor. An investor who has made a terrible investment.

That isn't to say he's stupid. He's clever enough to know how handsome he is. He's clever enough to have fallen in love with the gorgeous Laura (Penélope Cruz), and he's clever enough that when one of his powerful clients (Rosie Perez) asks him for a favor, he obliges. He's clever enough to know which suits look good on him, and which car is the slickest, and that it's a good idea to solicit cautionary advice from smooth criminals like Westray (Brad Pitt) before taking part in a shady deal with his shady pal Reiner (Javier Bardem). But the Counselor also thinks he's pretty smart, and he bets that his intelligence will be adequate protection from the kind of people he's getting into business with.

"Anybody who thinks he is the smartest is on his way to the slam," Reiner warns the Counselor, and the Counselor listens. (The Counselor is a less enthusiastic listener whenever Reiner starts talking about his weirdo girlfriend, Malkina, played by Cameron Diaz—a woman whose cheetah-spot tattoos are only upstaged by her two pet cheetahs, both of which rock rhinestone collars and chase down jackrabbits for Malkina's amusement.) And when the deal inevitably turns bad, no one seems surprised except for the Counselor.

The Counselor is the first screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy—who, at least in the past few years, has had solid luck with films based on his novels, with the Coen brothers' great No Country for Old Men in 2007 and John Hillcoat's decent The Road in 2009. McCarthy wrote The Counselor as a straight-up screenplay and teamed up with director Ridley Scott, which makes it hard to figure out why The Counselor doesn't work nearly as well as it should: McCarthy offers a reliable serving of dour philosophy and new and exciting ways to kill people, and Scott reigns in the aloof goofiness that plagued Prometheus. The Counselor's plot is vague but propulsive; the performances, aside from a few iffy moments from Fassbender and a whole lot of iffy moments from Diaz, are solid; the visuals, as one would expect from any Scott production, are very pretty. But by the time it ends, The Counselor feels like a series of sequences that never make a coherent movie. (It doesn't help that one gets the sense The Counselor's dialogue might work better on the page than the screen: out of the entire cast, only Pitt and Bardem seem to get the script's sinister sense of humor. Though to be fair, I do want one of Diaz's lines to be my new ringtone: "I never knew my parents. They were thrown out of a helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean when I was three.")

I probably sound like I hated The Counselor, which I didn't; I just expected more from it. Even now, after seeing it, I still kind of do: The film gets airy and distant whenever I try to think of it as a whole, but certain scenes and images still pop (most of them involve McCarthy's new and exciting ways to kill people). The Counselor is a movie that's totally fine, and it's a movie that should be a lot more.