Ahh, something I can sink my teeth into. Cormac McCarthy's mindbendingly brilliant screenplay. There used to be an account executive at the ad agency where I spent 15 or 20 years at the end of my career, who would look at a campaign or single promotional effort prepared by my team, and say. "I don't get it." Fortunately she was overruled by those who did "get it" because they "got it" easily.
The point(s). I'm getting to that. I was rather surprised by the reaction to The Counselor. Many said "no plot." They are woefully mistaken. Many said, too many loose ends to attend to mentally. They are the lazy ones, the ones who want to be fed the usual; some nudity, violence and cars blowing up. All I can say to them is, thanks for your input. Hrh hrh hrh. And then there were those who didn't "get it." Oh boy. I don't know what to say to them. Maybe what I said to the account executive, "How exquisitely sad."
Now to the meat. Cormac McCarthy never wrote anything that wasn't stupendous. Some books left me glazed-eyed and bummed, but they also wowed the shit outa me with The Writing. From The Orchard Keeper on. His Blood Meridian was the most powerfully poetic, beautifully written apocalyptic violence I have ever read. A classic often compared to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and named to the 25 best novels ever written. Many more beautiful books followed.
So, "no plot," "too much going on," and "I don't get it," don't signify. They just don't. Sweep them aside.
This is going to be a loooonnngg post, I feel it.
I first saw the screenplay on Amazon and passed it up, though I had a McCarthy jones that never goes away. I know the format and didn't want to read him that way. Big mistake. I saw the film on DVD, and had to replay the soliloquies for their dazzling beauty and philosophical pith. Then I sent for the screenplay. I read it oh, so slowly, savoring the descriptions, the dialogue, the metaphors, the lurking meanings in the shadows.
A word about evil. The screenplay is like reading some apocryphal forbidden church document. Evil is a character in The Counselor. Somewhere along the road, (pardon that,) McCarthy has run into evil. This is not to say he is, but he dealt with it along the way, either absorbed it or rejected it. But he knows It. My fancy is there was some sort of crossroads before his first literary efforts, and he came away with extraordinary powers, like Robert Johnson, the king of the Delta blues, another Faustian legend. Reading this screenplay is a goosebump trip.
There's an instructive passage between The Counselor and a diamond merchant early in the script, in which a large, impressive diamond is viewed from the underside and seen to be cut in a way that doesn't allow the crown and pavilion to be aligned. "Once the first facet is cut," says the dealer, "there is no going back." He also says that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. The Counselor has already set his in motion, at about the same time he buys his beloved Laura (Penelope Cruz) an engagement stone.
In one telling sentence, the dealer says, "We are not looking for merit. This is a cynical business. We seek only imperfection." Something the prince of darkness might say, but the diamond dealer is not evil; he is merely stating fact, advancing the story subtly forward.
Many such instances occur.
Cameron Diaz's character, Malkina, is insatiably evil. She escalates, because evil is her drug, and she's totally addicted. She pumps Laura for information on how to initiate the telling of confession to a priest. When she does enter the confessional, what follows is truly unsettling. She may want to be forgiven for her sins, but she also wants to tell them to the priest, trophy depravities. She's also beautiful, but in a very hard-edged way.
The casting in this film is marvelous, direction superb. Perfection throughout, bit part to major. Javier Bardem must be an actor's actor. His role as Reiner, an increasingly reckless, though troubled, voluptuary is breathtaking. All the actors enjoy and "get" Cormac McCarthy's words and impetus to a T.
The Counselor naively decides to get in and out of a very dirty business, fast money to sufflate his investment exponentially--but the filth is a tar baby. A hit-you-on-the-head metaphor for the whole business is the drugs sealed in 50-gallon drums, then hidden in a septic tank pumping truck and covered with fecal matter. And suddenly everyone is in deep doo-doo, as they say, when a seemingly unrelated event pivots everything unnervingly to hell and gone.
Leading up to that pivot, plot point, is some fun dialogue: a motorcyclist has been arrested in Texas for going 206 mph. The Counselor tells the biker's mother, a hard mama played by Rosie Perez, "206. That's not a speed, that's a time of day. Or somebody's weight. Are you telling me he was going two hundred and six miles an hour? In what?"
She answers "On that Jap bike of his." Later in the conversation, she offers to fellate him for the $400 fine. He tells her, as he zips up his briefcase, "You'd still owe me three-eighty."
As Brad Pitt's character, Westray, tells The Counselor, "(The cartel) don't really believe in coincidences. They've heard of them. They've just never seen one."
And this: described very early on (by Reiner) is an ugly device made for killing, technologically quite up to date, but medieval in its grotesquery. It, also, foretells a no-return, no-way-out, absolutism. And it is awful.
Westray, a middle-man, has told The Counselor what he's getting into, and sees a couple of cracks in his facade earlier. When the deal goes south, he is resigned. What will happen, will happen. To all of them. And it, like the device described by Reiner, is horrific.
I won't spoli the denouement, except to say It is pure Cormac McCarthy. Pure. (Involuntary shudder) But there are moments in this story that are stunning, gut-clenching and darkly comedic. The Reiner/Malkina love affair replete with trained cheetahs in the veldt-like atmosphere of the Texas/Mexico borderland, where the expensively-collared cheetahs chase game, catch it, and Malkina watches with her unblinking azure eyes through binoculars, atop an Escalade, while Reiner cooks steaks on a portable grille. Hemingwayesque through a dark lens.
And Malkina takes autoeroticism to an entirely new level and meaning in a mouth-dropping scene with Reiner's Ferrari on a golf course.
Reiner's night clubs with fine art and actual race cars hanging on the walls and classic motorcycles scattered about will dilate your pupils, as will the gorgeously shot camera work throughout this film.
The word "cautionary" popped up during The Counselor's visit to the diamond dealer, when the merchant warns of partaking in a stone's endless destiny. Again, in a conversation with Westray, who says "Good word, cautionary. In Scots law it defines an instrument in which one person stands as surety for another." And this locks another moving part into place as neatly as synchromesh gears in a Lamborghini.
Caution, curves ahead.
I think those who expected a feet up on the coffee table, smooth ride character arc and Hollywood ending, while wiping the dust of popcorn from their hands would be shocked and disappointed. Oh, there's an arc allright, meteoric in its flashy path. But few prevail at the end. Even Malkina is somewhat inconvenienced by it all. Seems maybe only one of the cheetahs made out, a female, with a favorite rock upon which to sun and scan for game.
When subjected to The Everyman-Hero Paradigm based on Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Counselor falls short in the twelve steps from Everyman to Hero--unless one has an extreme sense of irony. For instance, step 11, Resurrection. (The hero faces a life-and-death moment, then proves beyond a doubt that he is changed forever as he evades death again.) Oh yeah. Changed.
I took a screenplay course under the legendary Robert McKee when I lived in Los Angeles. In his ten commandments was this: Thou shalt not write on the nose. Put a subtext under every text. It seems McCarthy does this (beautifully) as second nature. And, for those who cried, "No plot! No plot!" The Counselor exemplifies both The Punitive Plot (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and The Tragic Plot (Othello, Hamlet, King Lear).
Why, after No Country for Old Men, did anyone with four brain cells expect there to be a redeemed hero (or even anti-hero) in The Counselor? Hmm? Spoilers be damned. See it, or read it, for the beauty, for the language, for the intricacies and arabesques of malevolence. Then breathe a deep sigh of relief that your life is really rather boring.