The Counselor: Cormac McCarthy as Screenwriter and Why it Works

The CounselorBy Amanda Festa

Based on the trailer alone, The Counselor was a movie that my dad and I could agree on. He likes action and the unpredictable insanity that comes from a combination of car chases and a wildly dressed Javier Bardem (Check and Check); I like psychological thrillers and intrigue, especially when served up by the one-two punch of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender (Check and Check).

Luckily, I also like slow-moving existential reflections on the human condition.  My dad, who I found snoring for the better part of the second half, does not.

Apparently, whoever cut together the trailer for The Counselor had phoned it in that day.  Maybe they had a rough night, rolled in to the office late and thought, Javier Bardem acting crazy, something exploding, Cameron Diaz touching Penelope Cruz suggestively — I got this.  No one will ever know that I didn’t watch the movie.  The trailer even boasts the hashtag #haveyoubeenbad; To answer its question — No, but I have been wildly misguided in to bringing my dad to a film that features a lot of lengthy ultra-ambiguous, very philosophical monologues and not much action.

If I had read the small print on the trailer, I would have known better. But I was too distracted by Cameron Diaz’s cheetah print tattoo and Brad Pitt in a cowboy hat spliced together with a slow building score that teased a film with a huge climax to notice the writing credit: Cormac McCarthy.

The script was penned by the author of All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road.  While the aforementioned novels have all been adapted for film, The Counselor is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s first original screenplay.

It makes sense because the movie is very literary. The dialogue and interactions are beautifully constructed and purposely cryptic — as if the universal meaning of the characters’ plight is more important than trivial things such as what is actually happening. During their conversations, the characters do not divulge any details about their current predicament, and yet they never stop talking.  We may not learn The Counselor’s real name, but in the trade off we are granted some pretty poignant — albeit gloomy — commentary on the absurdity of the world, our place in society, regret, atonement, the repercussions of our decisions, etc. etc.

The clever thing about The Counselor is this: the trailer is not wrong. The basic plot of the film is what my dad and I presupposed – Fassbender (The Counselor) gets involved in some shady drug trafficking scheme organized (at least in part) by an eccentric Bardem (as if there is any other kind). When their best-laid plans go awry, a predatory Diaz is not to be trusted (any English major worth their salt could smell the foreshadowing of that cheetah tattoo a mile away, proving once again the usefulness of a humanities degree), and Cruz is The Counselor’s wide-eyed fiance caught in the crossfire.  All the stereotypes are present and accounted for.

Ultimately, the problem with the trailer is that it reveals as much about the plot in two minutes as the film does in two hours.  Aside from The Counselor’s vague moniker, we know he is a lawyer, and that despite being warned by everyone within spitting distance, he decides to get in bed with Bardem’s Reiner on some shady dealings which involve drugs, although we are not sure what the dealings are exactly, or what his role in the whole scenario is, or why The Counselor would take such a risk.

Regardless, the unknowns are not important. This film fills plot holes with words — and written by McCarthy, it should come as no surprise that the film is about the words first — and the words are well-crafted, thoughtful and often times simultaneously gorgeous and soul crushing.

The involvement of Pitt’s Westray is never really known, but in his meetings with The Counselor, we can gauge that he is some kind of middleman, a free spirit with few ties to society who has been in the game for a while and knows his days are numbered. He muses in a way that is half cynical, half realistic – the words of a man who has seen enough to comment somewhat knowledgeably on human nature, making his monologues (and Pitt’s delivery) some of the best in the film:

I’m pretty skeptical about the goodness of the good. I think that if you ransacked the archives of the redeemed you would uncover tales of moral squalor quite beyond the merely appalling. I’ve pretty much seen it all, Counselor, and it’s all shit. I could live in a monastery, scrub the steps, wash the pots, maybe do a little gardening.

Diaz’s Malkina is a weary, world-hardened creature who speaks in generality and metaphor. Like Westray, she is both cynical and realistic, and yet her reality is a dismal, unfortunate place to be, making her monologues haunting and borderline nihilistic:

I suspect that we are ill-formed for the path we have chosen. Ill-formed and ill-prepared. We would like to draw a veil over all the blood and terror that have brought us to this place. It is our faintness of heart that would close our eyes to all of that, but in so doing it makes of it our destiny… But nothing is crueler than a coward, and the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.

While the film has gotten some less-than-glowing reviews, I’m sure a decent amount of them come from filmgoers like the eight or so in the theater with me, who walked in expecting a shoot-em-up drug caper and left well-rested and ready for the day.

For me, it was an even trade. I was expecting an escapist thriller that would take me on a two-hour roller coaster ride, but instead I got a harsh light bulb gleaming off the underbelly of the human condition. I almost wish it had been a novel — and I do plan on reading the screenplay in print — because the monologues, while delivered memorably in Diaz’ cynical smolder and Pitt’s matter-of-fact drawl, would work equally well, or some may argue better, in written form.

As for my dad, he says that we can agree to disagree, but next time he’s choosing the movie.

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  1. I also liked the film and felt I had to read the screenplay to really get into the meat of some of those long-ish monologues. It was worthwhile.

    Very minor nitpick – Counselor is financially strapped, this is touched upon in a couple of lines of dialogue between him and Bardem’s character.