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Review: The Counselor, a film that talks like a book

It’s a film about the vision and style of Cormac McCarthy – but does it work? Twentieth Century Fox

Review: The Counselor, a film that talks like a book

The Counselor is a collaboration between one of the last century’s literary greats, novelist Cormac McCarthy, and one of the filmmakers who has helped define contemporary, mainstream American cinema, director Ridley Scott.

And it provides an opportunity to witness the tension between the demands and preferences of literary writing and those of writing for the screen.

It looks like an animated, R-rated Louis Vuitton ad. Or, in the words of critic Mark Hughes, writing for Forbes:

an episode of Miami Vice where everyone is earnestly quoting philosophy and merely pretending they know what’s going on when in fact none of it makes any real sense.

Trailer for The Counselor (2013).

The film is an archaic cautionary tale with the themes and feel of Hollywood: there’s the all-star cast (Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem) and the always topical drug trade between the US and Mexico.

And yet, unlike the manipulative moralising evident in Paul Haggis’ 2004 film Crash, The Counselor will offer no cathartic affirmation of principles in line with humanist sentiments.

A man’s world in ruins

The Counselor is a film of many flaws.

It wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test as there is no scene that features two women in a dialogue that does not involve men. The film is the product of a particularly masculinised view of the world and at times explicitly and comically depicts male efforts to caricature femininity.

It’s true that the last “man” standing in The Counselor is a woman, a character who is colder, smarter and more assured than the fallible male characters – but it is a masculinised version of femininity that ends up winning out.

The patriarchal leanings of the film are even more explicit in the original screenplay, which features a scene with the pregnant female lead saying that she will murder her child if it is a girl.

Perhaps the most important thing to contemplate when confronted with McCarthy’s male chauvinism, is that his vision of a world suitable only for men is a world in ruins.

McCarthy on screen

The Counselor provides an opportunity to witness what happens when a writer of some power wrests the mechanisms of cinema from screenwriters who are generally taught to make their craft undetectable.

Trailer for No Country for Old Men (2007)movie>

To a greater extent than the more cinematically accomplished No Country for Old Men, this is a film about the vision and style of Cormac McCarthy, a writer whose credentials provoke continual whispers of coming nominations for the Nobel Prize.

The 1985 novel Blood Meridian is cited by eminent literary critics as one of the best – or in Harold Bloom’s case, the best – American novels of the last century.

As a great living writer, who has already had success writing quasi-screenplay novels, McCarthy is able to “annoy” (to use Scott’s word) directors and producers into making films — and not just screenplays — that are, in some significant way, his.

Scott and McCarthy, Cronenberg and DeLillo

Many of the criticisms the film has attracted are mirrored in the assessments of David Cronenberg’s 2012 screen adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis.

Trailer for Cosmopolis (2012).

DeLillo is, of course, another heavyweight of modern American literature. Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described Cosmopolis as:

  • “heavy, unmanoeuvrable and preposterous”
  • “an exercise in zeitgeist-connoisseurship that appears obtuse, self-indulgent and fatally shallow”
  • “blatantly flimsy, absurd and symbolic”
  • “stiff, slow and dependent on a kind of numb glamour that seems left over from the 1980s. DeLillo’s novel has been distilled by the director into opaque babble.”

These are all phrases that would be unsurprising to find in a review of The Counselor. Only, due to McCarthy’s close involvement with the production of the film, we cannot simply blame Ridley Scott.

Contrary to what Bradshaw suggests, the problem isn’t that Cronenberg has dabbled with the form of the novel too much. He has in fact done the opposite, failing to transform DeLillo’s difficult prose into a form palatable to an audience expecting a film.

Both films are covered in the fingerprints of great literary writers – and both have been subject to similar criticisms. The common problem seems to be that the writing does not undergo a significant enough transformation before it becomes cinema.

Films that talk like books

Instead of a slow and careful distillation of literary expression into a cinematic narrative, with The Counselor the audience is exposed to both a spectacular and glamorous visual spectacle – and the kind of language we have become accustomed to reading on the page and hearing in the silent privacy of our heads.

The conversations that take place in Scott and McCarthy’s film are not realistic imitations of the way people speak, any more than the characters and their actions are realistic imitations of the way people act.

When it comes to cinema, convention demands that in order for speech to be realistic, it be direct. We expect not to detect the artifice of language on screen: truthful, realistic speech is free from embellishment and paradox, we hope.

EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

McCarthy’s language, by contrast, is highly embellished and paradoxical. The characters seem shallow and plots impenetrable because they are subservient to the artifice of literary prose. It speaks them rather than them speaking it.

A character can speak in a literary way but, in the context of contemporary popular cinema, literary, poetic, or worse still, philosophical modes of reasoning and expression are risky ways to tell stories with moving images.

The Tarantino exception

The popularity of Quentin Tarantino is an interesting exception in this regard.

The cartoonish, hyperactive, evidently artificial, conversations that take place in his films have evidently found favour with mainstream audiences.

Perhaps what distinguishes Tarantino’s dialogues from those of The Counselor is the sense that despite being highly stylised, they clearly emerge from the video stores of popular culture. McCarthy’s reference points are the long history of theological, literary, theatrical and philosophical discourse – which might seem as out-of-date on the screen as his ideas about femininity.

Not quite a blockbuster

Perhaps the question of genre partially explains the irritation critics have expressed in relation to The Counselor.

Had it made a more explicit effort to gesture to the audience that it was a film of the surreal imagination, or a gritty, contemporary tragedy, then perhaps audiences would have felt at ease in its atmosphere. As it stands, the film is an uneasy mixture of the two.

The Counselor is not a film that follows the form of a conventional Hollywood blockbuster – but it does tempt us to judge it as such. We are familiar with these actors, this look, these production values – and they are not meant to take the form of a neobaroque dialogue that is at once forcefully and straightforwardly dramatic, as well as being elaborate, impenetrable and spectacular.

As though the two had fused, The Counselor seems more like a warped compound of McCarthy’s books and a Hollywood film. And when books are often reading increasingly like screenplays, it is nice to see an author shrewd enough to ensure that in some cases the reverse will also be the case.