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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODMOVIES - BOYD TONKIN

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

The Coun­sel­lor

RISKY BUSI­NESS: Michael Fass­ben­der as a lawyer and Javier Bar­dem as a drug king­pin in

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