A slow descent into hell
Screenwriter Cormac McCarthy says his latest film is simply about a man who woke up one day and decided to do something wrong
HOLLYWOOD is indeed no country for old men, unless they happen to be called Cormac McCarthy or perhaps Ridley Scott. Surely no other almost-octogenarian novelist ( McCarthy turned 80 in July) could deliver a screenplay to his New York agent in January and see the ensuing film go into production that same year.
The Counselor, directed by Scott (76 this year) and with a cast as glittering as the diamonds that bewitch its central character (Javier Bardem, Pénelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt), opens in cinemas on Friday
The US launch divided and disturbed critics: without giving too much away, it’s tough to convey the desolation of the final act. The plot comes to resemble the slow-garrotting gadget lovingly described by Pitt’s thoughtful hoodlum, “a device apparently engineered and patented in the halls of hell”.
Wise counsel: do not take to this movie anyone with whom you hope to share a fun-filled evening.
Early last year, literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban was expecting to see a draft of McCarthy’s 12th novel, the first since his post-apocalyptic nightmare The Road. Instead, the script of The Counselor – written in five weeks, apparently as light relief from fiction – arrived. Of course, with the bleakly pessimistic prophet of the Tex-Mex badlands, his notion of a relaxing digression might be closer to our idea of a protracted session with the rack.
As interview- averse as ever, McCarthy has in a terse statement described Fassbender’s bland, nameless lawyer as “a decent man who gets up one morning and decides to do something wrong”. He opts to invest in a one-time drug deal and then return to the straight and narrow with Cruz, the fiancée he genuinely loves. But as in some medieval moral fable, the jaws of the abyss open to swallow him.
Arguably, McCarthy’s statement whitewashes the ethics of his furtive protagonist. Pitt, firing off semi-disguised literary quotations from underneath his designer Stetson, tells the counsellor that, “For all my sins I still believe in a moral order. I’m not so sure about you.”
Many viewers will assume that The Counselor captures a smoking, bitter distillation of McCarthy. The author signed up as an executive producer, spent 40 days on the set and even advised his cast on the delivery of lines. The usual complaints about a novelist’s vision being diluted via the studio system seem not to apply here – as they did in the Coen Brothers’ far sharper but whimsical rendering of No Country for Old Men. (There, Bardem sported the haircut from hell; here, as ageing playboy- dealer Reiner, it just belongs in purgatory.)
As it took the express escalator from page to screen, The Counselor fulfilled a wish that its creator has harboured for decades. No Country for Old Men began as a screenplay, long before it mutated into a novel; so did Cities of the Plain. McCarthy’s archive contains two other unfilmed scripts. The Gardener’s Son did become a TV movie, while his Beckettian duologue The Sunset Limited transferred to film as a two-hander for Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson.
A McCarthy screenplay will never follow the Hollywood rules. But what to do about those metaphysical monologues on good, evil and the dusty borderlands in between – as much an authorial trademark as the brand on a Texas steer? Director Scott keeps most of them, but shortens others. He retains the Amsterdam diamond dealer’s mood-setting disquisition on the flaw that defines the stone (“We seek only imperfection”) but drops much of a treatise on the theological difference between the Greek hero and the Jewish prophet. More seriously, the compression of the script’s concluding scenes, in which femme fatale Cameron Diaz begins to explain herself, alters the balance of moral forces. It even leaves the film open to the charge of having a “repulsive misogynistic streak” (Cinema Viewfinder critic Tony Dayoub’s words).
True, McCarthy has always dealt in archetypes that – nudged a degree or two too far – can edge into mere stereotypes. Early on, the script describes Diaz’s character as “the woman Malkina”. Reiner – not the author, of course – is brimful of macho maxims. But when a walkon drugs-gang heavy casually says about his pitbull Dulcinea, “Siempre las mas feroces, las perras” (“always the fiercest, the bitches”), you do feel in the presence of a mind at ease with gender myths.
All the same, Malkina as written possesses a dimension that her screen incarnation tends to lose. The full script emphasises her background in Argentina (“Soy pura Porteña”: pure Buenos Aires) and so helps explain the gnomic line about her parents being “thrown out of a helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean when I was three”. Notoriously, that is what Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-1983 did to dissidents; their children were often forcibly adopted by military families loyal to the junta. In their entirety, McCarthy’s words do at least partly motivate a woman who believes that “When the world itself is the source of your torment, then you are free to exact vengeance upon any least part of it”. Whereas the Diaz part in Scott’s film will be remembered chiefly for the alreadyinfamous scene in which she has intimate relations with a Ferrari.
In the end, McCarthy’s keen paternal oversight has not saved The Counselor from a studio makeover at crucial junctures. “At some point,” the shadowy jefe (boss) informs Fassbender, “you must acknowledge that this new world is at last the world itself. There is not some other world”. Welcome to Hollywood, Cormac.
● The Counselor: a screenplay is published by Picador; The Counselor opens in cinemas on Friday
RISKY BUSINESS: Michael Fassbender as a lawyer and Javier Bardem as a drug kingpin in