The studio did an exceptional job of keeping this film—directed by Ridley Scott from an original script by novelist Cormac McCarthy—under wraps until opening day. Now that they’ve screened it, the reason for the secrecy becomes all too apparent. “The Counselor” is terrible–nasty, ultra-violent and borderline incoherent.

The plot has to do with an elaborate heist of a Mexican cartel’s shipment of drugs into the U.S. via a specially-reconfigured fuel truck. Three men are behind the scheme to steal the truck—the eponymous lawyer, whose name is never given, presumably to make him Everyman (Michael Fassbender); a flashy drug-dealing entrepreneur named Reiner (Javier Bardem); and a smooth middleman, Westray (Brad Pitt). It’s never made entirely clear how the plan to hijack the shipment is supposed to work, but it also involves a speed-loving motorcyclist who happens to be the son of one of the lawyer’s clients, the imprisoned Ruth (Rosie Perez). And the profits are meant to be plowed into a new nightclub Reiner and the lawyer are opening up.

Of course the whole business goes awry, apparently because of the intervention of some others—government agents, for all I know—who kill the motorcyclist and take the truck. They in turn are soon waylaid by members of the cartel posing as cops, but the cartel heads finger the lawyer, Reiner and Westray as guilty parties and target them for execution. Also in their crosshairs is the lawyer’s new wife, pretty Laura (Penelope Cruz), while lurking in the background is Reiner’s cynical, self-serving mistress Malkina (Cameron Diaz)—along with their pet cheetahs.

About all one can say of McCarthy’s plot is that it’s intricate without containing anything remotely surprising. Setting aside the murkiness about the precise details of who does what and why (even though in the end there’s a reveal about who’s been manipulating things that itself comes as no shocker), the final thrust of the narrative merely involves the various participants being tracked down by the cartel for elimination. The process follows Chekov’s famous dictum about the gun in the first act—though in this case the devices aren’t just firearms but a particularly nasty form of strangulation and a snuff movie—but while this gives Scott the chance to demonstrate his expertise in staging and filming chases (something editor Pietro Scalia aids him in), it doesn’t generate much excitement. In fact, the gruesomeness brings a greater degree of revulsion.

McCarthy’s script does feature the occasional sharp phrase and amusing digression, but they’re far fewer than you’d expect from a writer of his reputation, and in the last act he turns instead to grandiose passages about life, death and destiny that sound like the literary affectations they are. One, a late-night conversation between the lawyer and a barman in an otherwise deserted saloon, is mercifully brief, but another—a telephone call he has with the cartel chieftain—turns into a vaguely existentialist monologue for Ruben Blade that’s as pretentious as it is interminable.

Meanwhile the cast try their best, but even people this talented need something to work with. Fassbender, who’s been so impressive elsewhere, is as anonymous as his character here; you could mistake him for any nondescript journeyman actor, and his effort to invest the protagonist with authentic emotion are embarrassing. Bardem is more watchable, simply because he’s flamboyant and boasts a hairdo as spiky as the Moe Howard one he wore in “No Country for Old Men” wasn’t. But Pitt seems just to be going through the motions, Cruz is utterly wasted, and Diaz is so intent on trying to simultaneously look sultry and exude malice that the coupling of semi-nude flouncing about and intense face-scrunching makes for a noxious combination. (She also must try to put across an idiotic scene in which, though no Catholic, she decides to go to confession just to nonplus the priest with her frankness.) There are flashy but ultimately vacuous cameos from Bruno Ganz, Dean Norris (of “Under the Dome”) and an uncredited John Leguizamo.

As usual with Scott’s films, the technical side of things is first-rate, with elegant cinematography by Dariusz Wolski that uses the varied locations to fine effect and an appropriately brazen production design by Arthur Max. Daniel Pemberton’s score, unfortunately, is nothing special.

But though some of “The Counselor” is visually striking, the overall effect of the picture is far from beautiful. One of the grisliest closing sequences shows a corpse being unceremoniously deposited in a heap of refuse by a bulldozer. It’s possible to interpret the treatment of that body as a metaphor for McCarthy and Scott’s contemptuous attitude toward the audience. But it might be more to the point to suggest that their movie deserves a similar fate.