NOVEMBER 2, 2013
CORMAC MCCARTHY is an author whose prose veers between two distinct styles. There is the nuts-and-bolts cadence of the physical world, a palpability that is at its barest in No Country for Old Men, where we come across whole paragraphs of sentences like these:
In the room he unwrapped the shotgun and wedged it in an open drawer and held it and sawed the barrel off just in front of the magazine. He squared up the cut with the file and smoothed it and wiped out the muzzle of the barrel with a damp facecloth and set it aside.
As literal as an instruction manual, these passages give shape to the physical world of his novels. Then there is the grandiloquent style, a fire and brimstone sort of poetry, like this observation from Blood Meridian:
For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by sleight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent desires.
Mystic and syntactically tortuous, this is McCarthy the mythmaker, setting down the laws of his universe. Both styles — the palpable as well as the mythic — may well inspire a filmmaker; they evidently have. Still, it’s fair to say that the latter is more difficult to convey on the screen. It is this style, however, that McCarthy clings to in The Counselor.
In The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, we have the first feature film made from a screenplay that McCarthy himself wrote. A number of his novels have been adapted for the screen, with varying degrees of success. And McCarthy has more than dabbled in screenwriting and playwriting before, albeit quietly. His first screenplay, The Gardener’s Son, was an unmemorable antebellum drama that aired on PBS in 1977. His next dramatic effort didn’t appear until 1995, when he published The Stonemason, a multigenerational family drama whose lengthy monologues made it difficult to produce. Over 10 years later came a grim one-act called The Sunset Limited, a dialogue between a man intent on taking his own life and the man who tries to talk him out of it. The Counselor, however, is the first McCarthy tale written expressly for the big screen. In many respects, it seems as if it was written with Hollywood in mind. As calculated a thriller as No Country, but far glossier, the script reads like high-toned pulp: sex and drugs and violence, outfitted with McCarthy’s familiar brand of philosophy. (James Wood noted in his 2005 review of No Country the novel, “Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy.”)
Theoretically, then, there should be no need to translate the author’s distinctive prose into cinematic idiom. No question about whether to voice-over or not to voice-over. Yet bereft of an actual narrator, McCarthy has chosen to place his grandiloquent style in the mouths of his characters. In some ways, it’s tantalizing, this glossy cross-border thriller populated with club owners and diamond dealers and drug cartel jefes who quote Keats and Marlowe (and even Cormac McCarthy) and speak in gnomic aphorisms. (“Truth has no temperature,” Cameron Diaz, as the film’s femme fatale, proclaims in an early scene.) Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt are affable standouts among a colorful cast of reprobates, both of them (mostly) at ease in their characters’ shifts between shit-talking and gravitas. But in a lot of ways, it doesn’t quite work.
As in many McCarthy stories, The Counselor rides on the weight of what appears to be a moment’s choice. “People dont pay attention,” No Country’s Anton Chigurh says to a man he has forced to call a coin toss. “And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same.” We get kernels of a similar philosophy throughout The Counselor, most of them offered to the counselor, a man of law, as it were (played by a mild Michael Fassbender) who chooses to involve himself in a lucrative drug deal made possible by the Mexican cartel wars. The deal goes wrong, of course, and the weight of the counselor’s choice is underscored by the violence and bloodshed we expect from a McCarthy tale. Yet as McCarthy tales go, this one feels inconsequential, even as its portentous monologues strive to lend it a stark authority. Early in the film, for instance, a sage diamond dealer, while examining a 3.9 carat Asscher-cut, remarks to the counselor, “Once the first cut is made, there is no going back. […] [W]e see a troubling truth in that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or ill.” Much later on, a refined cartel jefe offers the counselor much of the same: “As the world gives way to darkness,” he sermonizes from his richly decorated study, “it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing which you have created, no more, no less.”
By the lights of such monologues alone, The Counselor wants to grapple with the questions of determinism and human agency that are the stock in trade of McCarthy’s fiction. Unfortunately, the world that McCarthy has created here can’t fully support the gravity of its monologues. The film’s credibility hinges on two elements that have never been McCarthy’s strong suit: women and romantic love. Most of his stories avoid them, grounding themselves in a masculinized landscape of nature that’s red in tooth and claw. But the counselor’s worshipful love for the angelic Laura (played with fluttering eyelashes by Penélope Cruz) lies outside this range, and neither McCarthy’s script nor Scott’s direction can rescue it from the realm of cliché. Laura is never more than a sainted idol, and the love affair itself consists largely of avowals and diamonds, none of which provides the ballast we need to feel the impact of the counselor’s bad choices. Much more rides on the depth of this love affair than, say, the trailer park marriage of No Country’s Llewelyn Moss and his wife; yet even the banality of that briefly glimpsed relationship gave it more credibility. When the moment of accounting comes for Carla Jean, we feel its weight. Not so in The Counselor. And the narrative pronouncements that McCarthy puts in the jefe’s mouth as the tears roll down the counselor’s cheeks don’t make it so.
The characterization of the film’s femme fatale, Malkina, is a slightly different problem. This, in fact, is the first substantial female character that McCarthy has given us. Her darkness telegraphed a mile away by the dark roots of Cameron Diaz’s frosted hair, Malkina seems intended to convey the archetypal force of No Country for Old Men’s Chigurh and Blood Meridian’s Judge. Unfortunately, she doesn’t hold us in the thrall that these more satanic deviants have. She is clearly the embodiment of what the film’s men fear in women: we first see her in the high desert, sipping cocktails stirred by Javier Bardem’s weathered playboy as she watches her pet cheetahs hunt jackrabbits. And in what is perhaps the film’s most memorable (and telling) set piece, the slack-jawed Bardem recounts the night that his femme fatale fucked his car. McCarthy surely wanted her to be an intimidating presence, but Diaz’s Malkina is a cartoonish character, closer to Cruella de Vil than to the complex figure she might have been.
And so the film feels inconsequential. We can’t quite believe in its laws because we don’t quite believe in its world. But it does engage the eye, often by means different than other McCarthy novels that have made it to the screen. The social setting of The Counselor is sleek and glamorous, unlike the stark Southwestern landscapes and plain homes of his other fictions. That landscape is still there in this movie: between scenes set in the pristine rooms of the counselor’s world, we cut with a steady inevitability to the hard physical reality of the drug traffickers. In this respect, McCarthy and Scott give us the sense that the counselor’s hand has already been dealt: the machinations of that grimmer world would seem to precede his, yet they continue to unspool until the two have become inextricable. Even before the opening credits have rolled, beneath a landscape of inexorably turning wind turbines, we see a motorcyclist burning down a road, the sound of his engine fading in the distance as we drift on high to the counselor and his beloved in their bed of white linens. The motorcyclist, we will realize later, is already heading toward what the counselor has set in motion. Even if it’s what we’ve come to expect from McCarthy, it is nice to understand it without being told.