Reading and Watching The Counselor
Early in Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay The Counselor, a diamond dealer reflects on an issue that directly relates to Ridley Scott’s film version of the same screenplay. “The crown and the pavilion may be well cut each in itself and yet stand alien to one another,” he says of a poorly-cut diamond the titular Counselor is inspecting. “Once the first facet is cut there can be no going back. What was meant to be a union remains forever untrue and we see a troubling truth that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or ill.” Those who have seen the film may be surprised by these lines: if they were ever uttered, they ended up on the cutting-room floor, perhaps because they invite an unkind comparison between the misshapen diamond and Scott’s film. Like the diamond, both the script and the production (led by some of Hollywood’s most valuable A-listers) is well-cut, but each stands alien to the other.
Watching The Counselor after having read its original screenplay feels like a betrayal; I left the cinema almost enraged at Scott’s treatment of McCarthy’s story about a lawyer who turns to the drug trade for some quick cash. In many ways I had only myself to blame for this condition. I’d read the screenplay before I had even seen the film’s trailer, thanks to its mass-market release as a Picador paperback earlier this year and my own craven addiction to McCarthy’s work. I had read many of the savage reviews of the film (including the one that claims it is a worse film than Ishtar), and watched David and Margaret both give it a good kicking. ‘No worries,’ I thought, ‘they’ve all laid the blame squarely on the screenplay, and I loved the screenplay.’ A rough critical consensus is that the film is beautifully shot and has high-calibre actors trying their best with a flawed script that promises to be a thriller but fails to be thrilling—but, since I loved that script, how could it possibly go wrong?
It turns out that the film has gone wrong not because of the pontificating nature of the script, but because Scott doesn’t trust the audience to understand McCarthy’s eloquent pontification. For all of the critics’ talk that the film contains interminable monologues about various subjects, the reality is that most of the screenplay’s monologues were either left on the cutting-room floor or simply never filmed to begin with. It’s not just the diamond dealer in Amsterdam who gets truncated—although this is a particular loss, since in the screenplay he delivers a heroic and very McCarthyan oration regarding the manner in which gentiles have “purloined” the Jewish God and Jewish civilisation. We also miss Westray (Brad Pitt) fill in the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) about Plato and Goethe; we miss Malkina (Cameron Diaz) invent a fictional incestuous tryst with her sister to scandalise a priest taking her confession; we miss Reiner (Javier Bardem) telling bawdy stories about his friends’ sexual escapades. The only people whose lines are not significantly cut are the Counselor and Laura (Penélope Cruz), neither of whom actually have much to say.
Whole scenes also disappear, including several that counterbalance McCarthy’s nihilism with a bawdy sense of humour—something that has remained largely absent from his work since 1979, when his mordantly funny novel Suttree came out. The screenplay’s introduction to the half-Mexican drug-runner character of the Green Hornet (Richard Cabral), for example, involves a pretty funny joke about dog food that he uses to rebuke a nosy Texan woman; in the film, we first see him return to his den of iniquity, light a spliff, and give his pet pooch a blowback. The net effect is a flattening of the characters, who lose their wit, humour, and learning and instead become tired drug-film archetypes: the world-weary middleman, the scheming woman who turns out to be pretty good at this drugs caper, the affable buffoon kingpin, the helpless functionary marked for death from the get-go. Elliott Logan has written eloquently about the mistake embedded in the critical idée reçu that The Counselor is a “thriller that doesn’t thrill”—“It doesn’t seem to have occurred to [critics] that this suggests the movie is therefore not trying to be a thriller at all”—but surely part of the blame for this state of affairs must be laid at Ridley Scott’s feet, since he insists on directing and editing the film as though it were a particularly wordy and boring thriller.
Perhaps more serious than these sins of omission are the film’s sins of addition: extraneous scenes missing from the screenplay that are intended to make McCarthy’s relatively simple plot of a drug scheme gone wrong more comprehensible. Some are forgivable, even if they treat the audience like idiots, such as the infamous scene where Malkina has sex with Reiner’s car (an act only ever described by the braggart Reiner in the screenplay, not one meant to be seen by the audience). Less forgivable is a scene, early on in the film, where the Counselor calls Reiner and lets him know that he is in on the scheme. The scene fails a basic logical test—previously Reiner has claimed that he doesn’t speak in “arraignable phrases” and that he can’t be certain his phones aren’t tapped—but it also seems to fundamentally miss a point the screenplay makes. When McCarthy’s version of The Counselor opens, the Counselor has already committed to the scheme; there is no explicit moment of decision-making, since the screenplay seeks to explore the consequences of decisions that we make without even meaning to make them. The film’s focus on the moment the Counselor commits to the scheme, by contrast, makes it a weirdly redundant morality play: the Counselor is advised repeatedly that he shouldn’t do it, does it anyway, and spends the rest of the film being told that it’s too late to undo it. Hardly revelatory stuff.
One of The Counselor’s recurring motifs is a play on the title—the Counselor himself counsels no-one and cannot take counsel, and thus carelessly stumbles his way into a Grand-Guignol horror beyond his comprehension. Many characters repeat the line “I can’t advise you, Counselor.” Cormac McCarthy is listed as an executive producer of the film, but it feels as though he has ceded all creative control to Scott by saying “I can’t advise you, Ridley.” McCarthy’s novels are themselves full of characters who are resigned fatalists, but I can’t help but think The Counselor would have been a better film had McCarthy not shared that same trait.