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The Counselor: A Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy

April 2, 2014

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McCarthy is near the top of my list of favorite authors. And the film No Country For Old Men (Coen Bros), based on his novel, is one of my favorite films. Other film adaptations of his novels have found varied success: The Road was good but didn’t have the impact of the book, and All the Pretty Horses suffered from a forced, audience-friendly edit. McCarthy’s dark, violent, mythic western opus, Blood Meridian, has proven more challenging to bring to the screen, though several big names, including Ridley Scott, have been attached to the project.

Having abandoned what many consider an “un-filmable” story in Blood Meridian, Ridley Scott opted for The Counselor instead. The film already had hype with McCarthy and Scott, but the cast put it among the most highly anticipated films of 2013. Brad Pitt. Cameron Diaz. Javier Bardem. Penelope Cruz. Michael Fassbender.  The problem with The Counselor, though, is that it has many of the same attributes that make Blood Meridian a tough candidate for film. McCarthy’s disregard for conventional story structure and his thematic heavy-handedness don’t translate well to the screen this time. It’s only rescued from pure pulp by the peppering of great lines, Scott’s quality direction and solid acting.

I picked up this screenplay because I didn’t want to give up on this story after one viewing. I thought maybe I’d missed something. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t contain any secrets or additional layers that weren’t in the movie. Only a few bits from the original screenplay were cut.

This is all not to say that the screenplay is not interesting. It has many of the McCarthy signatures—dark themes, moral depravity, graphic violence. In the canon of McCarthy’s work, it resides closest to No Country—an American gets in over his head with the Mexican drug cartels. In this case, the Counselor of the title engages in a one-time drug deal with the cartels in an attempt to make a quick buck. When the deal goes sideways, everyone involved is in grave danger. McCarthy even employs an inventive weapon again. Remember Anton Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country?

In The Counselor, McCarthy introduces something called a “bolito.” Here’s Reiner (played by Bardem in the movie) describing it to the Counselor:

…it’s a mechanical device. It has this small electric motor with this rather incredible compound gear that retrieves a small cable. Battery-driven. The cable is made out of some unholy alloy, almost impossible to cut it, and it’s in a loop, and you come up behind the guy and drop it over his head and pull the free end of the cable tight and walk away…Pulling the cable activates the motor and the noose starts to tighten and it continues to tighten until it goes to zero.

There’s no spoiler here. Like Chekov’s gun, we know from the moment it’s described that we will see the bolito in action. Gore aside, it’s the the bolito that I find most interesting, because it is a metaphor for the system at work. The Counselor starts the gears in motion with his one decision to engage, and the machinery of the cartel—the people who know people who know people who will pay people to find people and kill people…it just tightens automatically. It’s not personal—it’s a machine. And there’s no stopping it. For McCarthy, it is just his latest form of faceless, impending doom. He has often played with the theme of fate (the coin flip in No Country, the coiner in All the Pretty Horses). Here it is fate set in motion by a simple decision. Again, Reiner to the Counselor:

You pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon and you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.

This is a book about decisions, about greed, about not heeding the warnings. It is a world where fate is turned upside down, where karma works backwards. There is one act of goodness in this story. It is exactly the act that sets the whole machine in motion for the Counselor.

This story is not without intriguing pieces, but it lacks some of the key elements that made No Country so good. Most notably, likable characters. In No Country, we rooted for Llewelyn Moss, admired the wisdom and goodness of Ed Tom, and were terrified by Chigurh, a fantastic villain. In The Counselor, we have none of that. The villain is faceless and there are no likable heroes. McCarthy rarely does happy endings, but there is a glimmer of hope even in the darkness of Blood Meridian. Here we just get blood.

 

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