In All That Dark, and All That Cold, by Craig Schroeder
Novelist Cormac McCarthy is a minimalist. He uses periods, mostly because he has to (I’m sure if he could find a way to write without them, he would), but otherwise, his work is virtually barren of punctation. He abstains from quotation marks completely and any punctuation more complex than a comma is about as rare as a McCarthy tale that makes Earth seem like an alright place to live. His stories are contained and personal, where characters either contribute to a decaying society or have a decaying society happen upon them. His economy of words would make Raymond Carver jealous. He’s a maestro at creating poignant portraits of the world with hardly anything on the page. The Counselor is a film written by Nega-Cormac. It’s loud. It’s showy. And it’s daft. The Counselor is void of all of the somber charm, intellect, and compassion that would make a McCarthy devotee excited to hear the words “Cormac McCarthy’s screenwriting debut.”
The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, is a film about the horrors of drug trafficking in war torn Juarez, and has all the subtlety and grace of an Olympic weightlifter trying out for the diving team. Michael Fassbender is Counselor (someone forgot to name him and it wasn’t me), a smooth attorney who goes to Mexico for a one-time foray into the drug trade. He hopes for one score, big enough to forget all of his troubles and live a life of luxury with his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). After endless exposition, narcotics related havoc ensues involving Mexican playboy/drug runner Renier (Javier Bardem), his disengaged girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and drug-game veteran, and quip machine, Westray (Brad Pitt). As things are wont to do in a Cormac McCarthy story, Counselor’s plan goes bad and mankind does horrible things to one another (including a few murders that are so dumb they are delightful).
In Episode 266 of the podcast, Tyler and David discuss judging a film by it’s reputation and whether or not previous knowledge of a filmmaker, actor, subject matter or screenwriter should influence how you feel about a film. No matter which side of the argument you fall on, it’s hard to ignore the prestigious reputations behind The Counselor, due in large part to the marketing campaign that touts the creators more than the film itself. Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott are masters of their craft. But I’d like to stress that this isn’t just a bad film because we know the filmmakers are capable of so much more. It’s just a bad film. It trips and falls at the crack of the starting pistol and stumbles all the way to the end.
The pacing of The Counselor, which you’d think would match the fast-talking characters, is painfully slow and patronizing and sets a precedent that the film can never recover from. The first hour of the film is an endless parade of explanation, wallowing in exposition that suggests the filmmakers don’t trust the viewer to put the pieces together on their own. The constant download of explicit information makes any payoff that can be salvaged from the film about as climatic as a trip to the supermarket.
If there is one running theme in The Counselor, it’s condescension; it operates under the pretense that we, the movie-going audience, think drug trafficking in Juarez is something to aspire to and the film is here to educate us. There are non-stop lessons being taught, mostly through clunky, on-the-nose dialogue (“If your definition of a friend is someone who will die for you, then you don’t have any friends”). In the opening moments of the film we see Renier, who has a flare for the flamboyant, coaching his pet cheetahs to prey on small-time game in the Mexican dessert. Get it? And McCarthy and Scott don’t stop at merely beating you over the head with these kind of obvious visual metaphors; at one point a character in the film flat out explains how cheetahs are just like the Juarez drug trade. The film wants to teach, but the thing they purport to know is that drug trafficking is bad and it’s high time you get that through your head. This is made even more frustrating by the knowledge that McCarthy can and has written really good stories about drug cartels, degenerates and criminals. No Country For Old Men is about drugs, but it’s also about obsession, greed and tempting fate. The Counselor flirts with loftier themes, but never comes close to realizing or exploring them.
Much of the film seems misguided and confused, telling us one thing but showing another. For example, the film opens with a sensual and tender sex scene. The camera lingers on Laura’s face as it is repeatedly obscured and then revealed again by a floating, white bed sheet. The shot composition and lighting is telling us this moment is sweet and enchanting, but the attempts at suave dialogue makes it feel icky and voyeuristic (especially when the Counselor tells the love of his life that he’s able to pleasure her so well because he spent a lot of time with “nasty women”).This is a minor offense, sure, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole and it’s general lack of cohesion.
Most of the characters are written with a frustrating sense of ironic detachment. Everyone in the film, save for the Counselor, are way too self aware. There’s an episode of The Office in which Michael Scott unknowingly charms the pants off of an unsuspecting woman. But when told the woman is interested, he transforms into “Date Mike”, the ubermensch of Michael Scott who wears a Kangol hat and speaks with an undefined “cool guy” drawl. That’s kind of what The Counselor feels like. It’s as if McCarthy has become aware of his reputation and is actively trying to create cool characters. But these hyper-aware, quip-bots leave no room for development and the product is a cast of characters that are so detached, I was left wondering does anyone care about the things they’re saying?
Michael Fassbender is a capable actor, but The Counselor gives him very little to do. He spends most of the movie advancing the plot with clunky dialogue or merely existing as a blank, white-washed wall in which dialogue is sloppily thrown upon. Fassbender is finally allowed some freedom in the third act of the film, but Ridley Scott doesn’t give any part of his performance the room it needs to breathe before cutting away or moving on entirely. There are a few good performances that manage to maneuver their way around silly dialogue and endless exposition. Rosie Perez is memorable as a former client of the Counselor, though she only has about five minutes of screen time. Dean Norris is on screen for even less time, but gives one of the most natural and oddly humorous performances of the film. Javier Bardem’s Renier, despite delivering a lot of bad dialogue himself, is the most fascinating part of the film. Partly because of his strange appearance, a blown-out haircut, orange-tinted skin and a jewelry collection borrowed from James Franco’s Alien in Spring Breakers, but mostly because Bardem is a magnanimous performer who is able to provide subtlety to a character who is intentionally written as the least subtle of the bunch.
The Counselor is a cautionary tale, but not the kind the filmmakers intended. If there’s any lesson to be had, it’s a warning of the adverse effects of creative complacency and the crippling consequences of style over substance. Oh, and cheetahs are a lot like drug cartels.
McCarthy is the furthest thing from a minimalist. THE ROAD and to some degree NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN are minimal-ISH compared to, say, BLOOD MERIDIAN and OUTER DARK, but make no mistake, those novels, and other he’s written and one which his reputation his based, are stylistically BIG. Here’s a sample sentence from OUTER DARK:
“t howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo’s clamor.”
And they’re also fairly bonkers in the events depicted — insane violence and madness and terror. I haven’t seen THE COUNSELOR (and I’ve read only about half of McCarthy’s novels), but if the basis for people’s understanding of his work is THE ROAD, which lately seems to be the case, you should know that in that case he was reining himself in considerably.
Oops, that should be “*It* howled execration…” etc.
Hmm, he’s no Hemingway, but he’s no Faulkner, either, speaking of a guy who hated periods. I think it’s fair to consider McCarthy to be generally a minimalist, at least in this later period of his work. Regardless, he tends to employ minimalism in a manner that can be compared, across mediums, to Michael Haneke in filmmaking – largely minimalist in tone and style that suddenly breaks out into a moment of incredible lyricism and poetry. I think “All the Pretty Horses” is a really good example of this, as is “No Country”, “The Road”, and what I’ve been able to read of “Blood Meridian” (*sigh* for being a parent). In the first of those his style, especially his dialogue style, is highly minimalist, punctuated with moments of breathtaking beauty or highly descriptive, powerful language, like when he describes the lead character’s affinity with horses near the middle of the novel, or where Blevins is taken by the Mexican police. He employs minimalism extensively, enough that considering him a minimalist is defensible, but probably not completely accurate. Saying he’s the farthest thing from minimalist, however, is less accurate still. His novels do tend to be violent or “bonkers” as you said (lol) but his style often reins that in – you cite “The Road” as the reason he’s considered a minimalist, yet that one’s by far the craziest McCarthy I’ve read, complete with the cannibal consumption of infants.
Part of what made the film adaptation of “No Country” so excellent was the Coen brothers ability to capture both McCarthy’s minimalism and his scope. The first five minutes show that so well – still shots of majestic, forbidding landscape as Tommy Lee Jones speaks that wonderful dialogue, edited carefully from what McCarthy originally wrote, contrasting against this stillness with ruminations on hell, heaven, good, evil. Then we cut to inside the police station and what follows is a prolonged, horrific, violently shot and edited murder of a policeman. That’s pure McCarthy, stylistically speaking. Minimalism is not lack of literary artfulness, but simply that artfulness conveyed more through what isn’t said than what is, often used most effectively to save your words for the big push, letting the language suddenly burst out and overwhelm the reader. That’s how I’ve best enjoyed it, anyway.
Craig, I’m wondering just who you think fucked this up so bad. It’d seem that McCarthy is perfect for this subject, and Scott has done good work on similar themes before, even if not recently. Is it both, or mostly one that’s too blame? Of course, you can’t answer definitively, but I’d like to hear what you think based on what fingerprints you can identify in the film of either artists’?
I adore Cormac McCarthy but, as much as it pains me to say, I think a lot of the blame lies with him. It is the perfect story for him but what made it to the screen feels really uninspired and lazy. It seems as if someone told him “Hey Cormac, could you write a Cormac McCarthy-ish movie” and he got caught up in writing a story that relies heavily on the themes and characters of his previous work without compounding them or exploring new ones.
Though Ridley Scott is not blameless, his direction is equally uninspired. There’s definitely an atmosphere that’s being sought after in this film and he doesn’t quite capture it. And there are some poorly executed action sequences. But the screenplay for THE COUNSELOR just dug a whole that even a whole lot of talented people couldn’t get it out of.
Thanks for reading!
McCarthy has written two novels that are more minimalist than what came before, but he is simply not a minimalist writer. Melville, Faulkner, and the Bible are the most common comparisons made, and those are very fair.
Sorry, it’s just that I think McCarthy’s prose is being badly misrepresented here — Raymond Carver isn’t even in the same zip code stylistically — and that misrepresentation is being used as evidence against THE COUNSELOR which I have now seen, thought was terrific, and thought was entirely in line with the McCarthy who wrote NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Those two films — and as much as I loved THE COUNSELOR, NO COUNTRY is clearly the better movie — are basically companion pieces laying down a harsh Old Testament morality. NO COUNTRY is harsher because Llewellyn’s transgression is less severe, but THE COUNSELOR is more horrifying because the counselor through his arrogance and corruption is bringing into his life a world of nightmarish violence unlike anything he can even imagine, but which actually does exist on this planet.
And Dayne — THE ROAD is crazy, but not as crazy stylistically, which is what the “minimalism” question is all about. His style IS reined in in that one. I don’t know how much of BLOOD MERIDIAN you’ve made it through, but Hemingway, and Carter, it certainly ain’t. Plus, the grotesque death of children is a regular feature throughout his work, as a symbol of the ultimate moral corruption. THE ROAD is simply the most recent to use it.
There’s no doubt his more recent work is less…showy (?) than earlier pieces, though I don’t care for using that particular word. Regardless, I still think he’s a curious mixture of minimalism and lyricism, striking a balance between Hemingway and Faulkner, if you will. Melville I find to be very similar, stylistically, and an excellent comparison. At no point ever is he like Carver lol, who is the definition of minimalism, but that’s also part of short story writing – in five pages, everything takes on greater significance. I haven’t seen “The Counselor” so I really can’t speak to that, but I think minimalism is definitely a tool in McCarthy’s repertoire, so to speak, whereas an author like Faulkner is never minimalist. I adore all of these authors, by the way, this is not a criticism of any of their work (though I found “The Road” to be rather disappointing when I read it several years ago), just simply a stylistic discussion. Though I haven’t seen “The Counselor”, I can absolutely see his talent suffering in screenwriting, mostly because those breaks into lyricism I mentioned in a previous post are precisely what makes his work so breathtaking, and those usually don’t work out so well in screenwriting, forcing a reliance on the director to deliver the artistry. I’d really love to see McCarthy work with a more clearly arty director, such as Steve McQueen, who only recently entered feature filmmaking after a fairly long and quite successful career in art photography. That’s just a bit of fantasy casting, though.