Film, Reviews

The slaughter to come: reading and watching The Counselor

by Chad Parkhill , November 14, 20133 Comments

Early in Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay The Counselor, a diamond dealer reflects on an issue that directly relates to Ridley Scott’s film version of the same screenplay. ‘The crown and the pavilion may be well cut each in itself and yet stand alien to one another,’ he says of a poorly-cut diamond the titular Counselor is inspecting. ‘Once the first facet is cut there can be no going back. What was meant to be a union remains forever untrue and we see a troubling truth that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or ill.’ Those who have seen the film may be surprised by these lines: if they were ever uttered, they ended up on the cutting-room floor, perhaps because they invite an unkind comparison between the misshapen diamond and Scott’s film. Like the diamond, both the script and the production (led by some of Hollywood’s most valuable A-listers) is well-cut, but each stands alien to the other.

Watching The Counselor after having read its original screenplay feels like a betrayal; I left the cinema almost enraged at Scott’s treatment of McCarthy’s story about a lawyer who turns to the drug trade for some quick cash. In many ways I had only myself to blame for this condition. I’d read the screenplay before I had even seen the film’s trailer, thanks to its mass-market release as a Picador paperback earlier this year and my own craven addiction to McCarthy’s work. I had read many of the savage reviews of the film (including the one that claims it is a worse film than Ishtar), and watched David and Margaret both give it a good kicking. ‘No worries,’ I thought, ‘they’ve all laid the blame squarely on the screenplay, and I loved the screenplay.’ A rough critical consensus is that the film is beautifully shot and has high-calibre actors trying their best with a flawed script that promises to be a thriller but fails to be thrilling—but, since I loved that script, how could it possibly go wrong?

It turns out that the film has gone wrong not because of the pontificating nature of the script, but because Scott doesn’t trust the audience to understand McCarthy’s eloquent pontification. For all of the critics’ talk that the film contains interminable monologues about various subjects, the reality is that most of the screenplay’s monologues were either left on the cutting-room floor or simply never filmed to begin with. It’s not just the diamond dealer in Amsterdam who gets truncated—although this is a particular loss, since in the screenplay he delivers a heroic and very McCarthyan oration regarding the manner in which gentiles have ‘purloined’ the Jewish God and Jewish civilisation. We also miss Westray (Brad Pitt) fill in the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) about Plato and Goethe; we miss Malkina (Cameron Diaz) invent a fictional incestuous tryst with her sister to scandalise a priest taking her confession; we miss Reiner (Javier Bardem) telling bawdy stories about his friends’ sexual escapades. The only people whose lines are not significantly cut are the Counselor and Laura (Penélope Cruz), neither of whom actually have much to say.

Whole scenes also disappear, including several that counterbalance McCarthy’s nihilism with a bawdy sense of humour—something that has remained largely absent from his work since 1979, when his mordantly funny novel Suttree came out. The screenplay’s introduction to the half-Mexican drug-runner character of the Green Hornet (Richard Cabral), for example, involves a pretty funny joke about dog food that he uses to rebuke a nosy Texan woman; in the film, we first see him returning to his den of iniquity, light a spliff, and give his pet pooch a blowback. The net effect is a flattening of the characters, who lose their wit, humour, and learning and instead become tired drug-film archetypes: the world-weary middleman, the scheming woman who turns out to be pretty good at this drugs caper, the affable buffoon kingpin, the helpless functionary marked for death from the get-go. Elliott Logan has written eloquently about the mistake embedded in the critical idée reçu that The Counselor is a ‘thriller that doesn’t thrill’—‘It doesn’t seem to have occurred to [critics] that this suggests the movie is therefore not trying to be a thriller at all’—but surely part of the blame for this state of affairs must be laid at Ridley Scott’s feet, since he insists on directing and editing the film as though it were a particularly wordy and boring thriller.

Perhaps more serious than these sins of omission are the film’s sins of addition: extraneous scenes missing from the screenplay that are intended to make McCarthy’s relatively simple plot of a drug scheme gone wrong more comprehensible. Some are forgivable, even if they treat the audience like idiots, such as the infamous scene where Malkina has sex with Reiner’s car (an act only ever described by the braggart Reiner in the screenplay, not one meant to be seen by the audience). Less forgivable is a scene, early on in the film, where the Counselor calls Reiner and lets him know that he is in on the scheme. The scene fails a basic logical test—previously Reiner has claimed that he doesn’t speak in ‘arraignable phrases’ and that he can’t be certain his phones aren’t tapped—but it also seems to fundamentally miss a point the screenplay makes. When McCarthy’s version of The Counselor opens, the Counselor has already committed to the scheme; there is no explicit moment of decision-making, since the screenplay seeks to explore the consequences of decisions that we make without even meaning to make them. The film’s focus on the moment the Counselor commits to the scheme, by contrast, makes it a weirdly redundant morality play: the Counselor is advised repeatedly that he shouldn’t do it, does it anyway, and spends the rest of the film being told that it’s too late to undo it. Hardly revelatory stuff.

One of The Counselor’s recurring motifs is a play on the title—the Counselor himself counsels no-one and cannot take counsel, and thus carelessly stumbles his way into a Grand-Guignol horror beyond his comprehension. Many characters repeat the line ‘I can’t advise you, Counselor.’ Cormac McCarthy is listed as an executive producer of the film, but it feels as though he has ceded all creative control to Scott by saying ‘I can’t advise you, Ridley.’ McCarthy’s novels are themselves full of characters who are resigned fatalists, but I can’t help but think The Counselor would have been a better film had McCarthy not shared that same trait.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. His work has appeared in the Australian,, Killings, the Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and the Quietus, amongst others. He was the Festival Manager for the National Young Writers’ Festival 2013.

  • Julia T

    Yes, yes, YES. This is my favourite review of ‘The Counselor’ so far. I was equally horrified to realise that the film deviated so significantly from the original screenplay. I think Scott’s changes have also altered the gender politics of the film – the movie has been labelled ‘misogynist’ by many critics, but I think this is due to Scott’s misdirection… one tiny example is during the opening scenes. In the screenplay, Malkina watches the cats through her own binoculars: she controls the gaze. In the film, Reiner holds the binoculars and watches Malkina: she becomes the sexualised, animalised object of the gaze. These subtle deviations from McCarthy’s original vision end up having a huge (but rather disappointing) impact. In any case, great review – nice to see someone actually interested in what McCarthy might be trying to achieve.

  • Iapetus

    Actually, David from At the Movies liked it quite a bit, he said it was fascinating if a little frustrating and loved the ‘tasty’ pontificating, he gave it 3 1/2 out of 5.

    Anyway, there is an extended cut of the film with more of McCarthy’s dialogue so wait out for that.


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »


Chad Parkhill

On judging the Most Underrated Book Award

The chair of the judging panel for the Most Underrated Book Award shares his observations on the award, what it means to be ‘underrated’, and the current landscape of Australian literary prizes. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »