Moving Pictures
Jun 16, 2023, 06:28AM

Unicorn Cinema: The Counselor

Ask not for whom the bolito tightens.

The counselor 2014.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Cormac McCarthy died this week at 89. The near peerless storyteller and literary stylist left behind a staggering bibliography: 12 novels between his 1965 debut The Orchard Keeper and last year’s Stella Maris, each vivid. haunting and violent in a way that only McCarthy knew how to pull off. His crowning achievement, Blood Meridian or an Evening Redness in the West, stands alongside grand, transcendent classics like Moby Dick and The Sound and the Fury (two of McCarthy’s favorites) as the kind of fiction that can only be literature, adaptation-resistant prose whose inevitable cinematic reworkings are, to paraphrase Eric Rohmer on John Huston’s Moby Dick, less adaptations than remakes. “What makes such an enterprise so futile is not that Melville's sentiments are unable to be expressed in images,” Rohmer writes, “but, rather, that of all the world's novels, it is the one that best displays the type of beauty that the screen is most able to highlight: In short, that this novel is already a true film.”

Blood Meridian is likewise already a true film, though that isn’t stopping Australian director John Hillcoat from taking a stab at it. He must not have learned his lesson with The Road, his earlier McCarthy adaptation, which does its best to stage the novel’s harsh survivalism and post-catastrophe world-building but fails to translate McCarthy’s patient, restrained late style, closer to an epic poem than the dense logophilia of Blood Meridian. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men ages much better, a modern classic in many respects, though it probably helps that McCarthy had originally conceived of it as a screenplay. Unlike the metaphysical poetry of Blood Meridian or the epic poetry of The Road, No Country’s straightforward, at times downright spartan prose practically demands to be brought to screen. The Coens give it a straightforward, no-frills style to match. No musical score, no backstory or unnecessary exposition. About a half of the film is near silent, pure visual storytelling. The other half is dialogue, which nobody writes quite like McCarthy: conversations that mainly consist of characters negotiating with each other—sometimes casually, sometimes desperate—few of whom realize the futility of their bargaining before it’s too late.

This is a theme McCarthy would run with in his short-lived second career as a screenwriter. Except for Tommy Lee Jones’ The Sunset Limited, McCarthy’s adaptation of his own play, only one McCarthy screenplay got produced. Directed by Ridley Scott, The Counselor arrived in 2013 to mostly unfavorable responses. It’s hard to blame people for not liking it. The poster presents the film as a sort of high-end consumer product, with huge movie stars—Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz—posing seductively in designer clothes, impeccably coiffed. Some people probably went in blind, perhaps expecting a legal drama from the title, and then left the theater dumbfounded by what they just watched: another Futile Negotiation Fest from McCarthy, this time almost completely dialogue-driven and arguably more pessimistic than anything else the author has written. Anyone familiar with his work knows that’s a feat.

If McCarthy has any comparable contemporary, it might be George V. Higgins, whose Boston crime novels likewise are filled with doomed passengers in denial of their final destinations, a writer who also structured his novels around long, similarly vain negotiations between criminals, squares, and all the people who fall somewhere in between. That’s the basic set-up of The Counselor: a square we only know as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) wants to buy his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz) an engagement diamond that he can’t afford, so he enters a drug deal with his cartel-connected client Reiner (Javier Bardem). Rainer and his associate Westray (Brad Pitt) warn the Counselor about getting involved with Mexican cartels—that they commit unspeakable acts of vengeance, including casting their victims and their families in snuff movies—but the Counselor refuses to heed their advice. When Rainer’s girlfriend Manika (Cameron Diaz) hires a “wire man” to behead a motorcycle courier and steal the cocaine shipment, the cartel holds the Counselor accountable.

Once the cartel retrieves its drugs and murders Rainer, the movie mostly consists of the Counselor’s fevered attempts to alter his fate, though everyone he speaks with insists that there’s no use—what’s done is done. Ambient dread builds during the Counselor’s meeting with a cartel higher-up Jefe (Rubén Blades), his last ditch effort to spare the life of Laura, but they still kidnap her. The Counselor returns home to find a DVD-R waiting for him, labeled in permanent marker: “Hola!” He crumbles on the floor sobbing, knowing the disc contains footage of Laura’s death. Manika tracks Westray down in London and hires a woman to seduce him and steal bank codes, then sends assassins to steal his laptop and fit him with a bolito, a (thankfully fictional) wire collar that contracts irreversibly until the head falls off. (This scene is one of several reasons why the Unrated Extended Cut is preferable to the toned-down theatrical cut.)

Imagine Cormac McCarthy watching the bolito scene for the first time. Brad Pitt’s doing his trademark confident swagger through this shimmering metallic architectural  monstrosity, Daniel Pemberton’s piano-driven score gradually overtaken by Mortal Kombat-esque distorted vocals and an EDM buildup, and the moment when that dubstep drop is about to hit, the music cuts out, the bolito going around the movie star’s neck, his beautiful head slowly, painfully removed. Did McCarthy at all question whether these stylistic choices fit within his vision of the script? Or was he like me and thought it rocked?

Hopefully the latter. The film’s trojan horse design is part of why it’s such a good unicorn. Where else are you going to get such a messy collision of hard literary talent and Hollywood bullshit? Scott filters McCarthy’s nihilist borderland philosophizing through the sleek aesthetics of perfume commercials and luxury car ads, an appropriate choice for a movie that’s about, among other things, the interchangeability of people and products in a globalized capitalist culture.

As is probably obvious from the snuff movies and bolitos, The Counselor relies on a pretty racist portrayal of Mexico as a lawless, cartel-controlled land of constant kidnappings and beheadings. This isn’t anything new for McCarthy, but perhaps because it’s onscreen in The Counselor and not on the page, it feels much more over the top. (My friend Adam put it well in his review of the film: “Cormac McCarthy definitely watches Facebook videos of Karens in Target parking lots who are like ‘a white van parked next to me, I almost got human trafficked’ and he nods and thinks ‘truly, there is no God in Mexico.’”) On the other hand, McCarthy deals largely in symbols, and here the cartel arguably functions less as a realistic reflection of the dangers of Mexican border country and more as the hand of an unforgiving, indifferent free market. The Counselor is a globe-hopping thriller whose disparate locations—Texas, Amsterdam, Mexico, London—mostly serve to underscore the relative meaninglessness of things like states and governments in the era of unrestricted free enterprise.

But I don’t want to ascribe a political bent to McCarthy, who by some accounts was a traditional conservative and by others a libertarian of the SFI variety but whose work, as is so often the case with the best fiction, mostly resists easy political interpretation. The Counselor comes from a place of pessimism and discontent that knows no political stripe, written by a man nearing the end of his life and directed by a man whose brother had just committed suicide. A cloud of death floats over its characters, who never see the irony that McCarthy and Scott continually shove in their faces: the thing they’re doing everything in their power to prevent is life’s only certainty.

Now McCarthy’s time has come. Ask not for whom the bolito tightens…


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