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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The Road

the road“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”

~Cormac McCarthy, The Road

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I read about half this book two years ago. I have no idea why I put it down and never finished it. In Salem, MA, at this great bookstore, Harvin unearthed this movie tie-in addition of The Road. I bought it a) because it was half-priced; b) because I’d always intended to finish it, and this summer seemed like a good time; and c) because Viggo Mortenson is on the cover.

This book is a post-apocalyptic novel about a man and his son continually walking, searching for food, shelter, and safety, and fighting to survive in the vast remnants of a bygone civilization.

Stylistically, the book is fascinating. There are no chapters–just one continuous narrative with hundreds of short, intense sections, such as the one above. It’s the perfect book for the ADD reader–if you have five minutes while you’re stuck in traffic or standing in line in the grocery store, you can pull it out of your bag and read a few sections. Or you can sit down and become so engrossed that you read it in one shot–as I would have done had I not had Boston to keep my occupied. Even with all our fantastic activities in New England, I still managed to read this book in about two days. Additionally, note the sentence fragments–perfectly representative of the fragmented world in which the man and boy live. I think that, stylistically, this book could be as representative of the postmodern era as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is for the modern era.

As I was reading the next-to-last page of this book in our hotel in Danvers, MA, Harvin turned to me to show me something in the Longfellow poem she was reading. I shushed her and ignored her until I could read the last paragraph, after which I threw the book down on the bed. The ending is superb–but it leaves so many questions open-ended, which I think is actually quite a good thing. In reading the book, the reader never actually learns what caused civilization to end. All we know is that most people–seemingly worldwide–are dead, and the few who are left are slipping into madness or are on the run from those renegades who embraced crime and violence. It’s been years since civilization ended, as we discover that the man’s wife was actually pregnant with the boy when the disaster happened. The boy is now old enough to talk, and to grasp some huge concepts about civilization and the past vs. the present. In addition to knowing that years have passed, the only thing we really know is that whatever disaster occurred left the world covered in ash. The man and boy must wear face masks so as not to breathe in the ash, and everything is coated in gray. Was it fire? Flood? Famine? We never know for sure. In the book, however, that doesn’t matter. What matters is life after the tragedy–how does the man continue to live in this hopeless existence? He has his son–and some hope that perhaps someday the world can be a better place for his child.

The reader can imagine and fill in those blanks in the story. If the reader understands that the world ended in some great fire, then that works. If it was a series of natural disasters (like The Day After Tomorrow), then that works, too. There’s also more to the story after the reader closes the book. What happens to the characters after the events that conclude the novel? Does civilization return to some semblance of normalcy? There’s tension in the unanswered questions, but there’s beauty in the unknowing, too. Much like life, the story could take so many different directions.

Now that I’ve read the book, I am, of course, super excited about the film (ahem…Viggo Mortentenson as the unnamed man…yes, please). The film will be released on October 16, and after watching the trailer, I’m very intrigued to see how the filmmakers handle the issue of what exactly caused civilization to collapse. It seems that they deal with it somehow. Perhaps they merely chose some specific disaster and incorporated it into the plot. They also seem to deal a great deal in the backstory of the novel. All of the narrative of the book takes place on the road. The man and the boy are the two main characters, with a few minor characters that they meet along the way. The man also has flashbacks to life before the tragedy, and I think that’s where Charlize Theron’s character will appear. Anyway, it will be very interesting to compare the film to the book, especially since the filmmaker was asked to make a film version of the story before the book was even published in 2006. You can watch the official movie trailer here.

* * *

“The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss. The silky spills of ash against the curbing. He stood leaning on the gritty concrete rail. Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”