The Counselor

I accidentally went to see The Counselor last night. My friend Erica and I had dinner and went to a bonfire at the university where we work, but it was really cold last night, and we decided to see a movie. Erica read a one-sentence summary and told me Michael Fassbender was in it (which was really all I needed to be convinced).

Somehow, I failed to remember until the opening credits rolled that The Counselor is the film for which Cormac McCarthy wrote the script. (The Daily Beast posted a great explanation of why it’s important that McCarthy wrote the script and that it was successfully made into a film.)

Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant contemporary American writer. The Road is one of the best post-apocalyptic books of all time, and one of my favorite pieces of contemporary fiction. After reading that novel in 2009, I picked up Blood Meridian, a friend having told me that it was McCarthy’s best work. I finally abandoned that novel halfway in because I actually couldn’t handle the gritty, violent bleakness of the book. The Counselor very effectively captured McCarthy’s narrative style, which worked sometimes and failed at others.

To summarize the film, Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, an unnamed lawyer who gets involved in drug trafficking. The film moves between El Paso, where the Counselor lives with his fiance and where Brad Pitt drinks in bars and holds meetings with the Counslor, and Juarez, Mexico, where Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz’s characters are primarily based. There are brief forays into London, Amsterdam, Chicago, and Boise, which reveal the widespread operation of the drug traffickers. The Counselor joins the trafficking operation, but things quickly fall apart when the son of one of the Counselor’s clients is killed. Those involved in the operation attempt to run, mostly unsuccessfully. The film closes with one man facing the graphic, horrifying results of the choices he made, understanding that his greed (and the others’, though that isn’t necessarily made clear) led to unbearably tragic consequences.

There are some aspects of the film that worked really well. Ridley Scott directed, and the film was a fantastic visual representation of McCarthy’s prose; vast landscapes of both the city and the desert, combined with shots of a man driving a motorcycle at 200 mph and cheetahs chasing jackrabbits, immediately foreshadow how the film’s plot will play out. These people are driven by greed, by a futile search for wealth, by a desire to hunt and vanquish anyone who gets in their way. They are intensely selfish and engaged in a lifestyle that the Counselor really can’t fathom.

Where the film doesn’t quite work well lies with McCarthy’s writing, I think. His prose is sparse. In The Road, for example, he has virtually no organization pattern: no chapters, no quotation marks or attribution phrases to indicate dialogue or speaker. This works really well for his stories, though. When style can combine with content to reveal desperation and desolation, writing can be more powerful. An author can leave out major plot elements (like what caused the apocalypse) and trust the reader either to fill in the gaps or to recognize that those plot elements never mattered to begin with. The blending of form and content can propel the story, add suspense, and keep the reader engaged, constantly looking for clues as to what’s really happening. 

That doesn’t work as well in film, though. The first 3/4 of the movie left me confused but interested (and, frequently, disturbed) as I tried to piece together the story–how did all these people connect, what specific role does each play, why are they all so messed up, who are these random people who are clearly antagonists? But none of that really gets explained. The subtlety of the story doesn’t always give the reader enough to work with. (It does provide some weird and disturbing sex scenes that I wish I could remove from my memory.)

And then the last part of the film involves a lot of conversations on phones, and the film beats the reader over the head with METAPHORS and DEEP (or perhaps empty) PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS and THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND. Oh, so those cheetahs were supposed to be metaphors for Cameron Diaz’s characters; somehow I missed that EVEN THOUGH she has cheetah prints tattooed on her body (I didn’t miss that; note the sarcasm). I was rolling my eyes at the point when Fassbender is on the phone with some guy, who tells him about all the different kinds of worlds there are and why he can’t live in one world when he’s entered another and THESE ARE THE CHOICES YOU’VE MADE and IT’S HOPELESS and SUCK IT UP, COUNSELOR. The film shifts from very subtly showing to over-the-top telling, then to a suckerpunch of a conclusion (not unexpected, just really, really bleak). I wish we could have worked more toward a middle ground: slightly less subtlety in the beginning and slightly less preaching at the end.

Books and films are different mediums. Both are vital, but they can’t be treated the same way. In books, the writer only has his or her words; subtle descriptions can blend with narration to craft the story. But trying to blend subtlety with too much exposition in the dialogue is frustrating.

Yes, the film is visually artistic. It is visceral and bleak and violent (though not the most violent thing McCarthy could have written, so there’s that). Fassbender and Bardem are fascinating to watch, as usual. And it left me feeling hopeless at the end. I wish I’d been more prepared for the film, but I don’t actually regret watching (most of) it. I’ll never see it again, and there are very few people I would recommend this film to. I’m impressed that McCarthy managed to get an original screenplay produced, but I think he should focus on novel writing and let other screenwriters adapt his work instead.

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