KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

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, Junkee.com, Killings, the Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and the Quietus, amongst others. He was the Festival Manager for the National Young Writers’ Festival 2013.




  • http://juliatulloh.com 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.

  • Pingback: The Slaughter to Come | Chad Parkhill

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

My Salinger Year

Carody Culver

Searching for Mr Salinger

Joanna Rakoff’s book is ‘the truth, told as best [she] could’, of her year as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies, a job for which many an Arts graduate would sell a kidney. Read more »

editing

Carody Culver

Giving voice to a silent profession

The role editors play in the process of ushering new writing into the world is both vitally important and strangely overlooked. Read more »

354_1

Hannah Kent

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Hannah Kent defends Highbrow Literature

I understand why many people have a problem with highbrow literature. ‘Intellectual snobbery’ is a common accusation, as though the reason people read and write the stuff is solely to intimidate their dinner guests. ‘Highbrow literature is for wankers,’ I hear them say. Well, ladies and gentlemen, so is Fifty Shades of Grey. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

Douglass books

Julia Tulloh

High fantasy writers who aren’t George RR Martin, and who are also women

‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today. Read more »

Conchita Wurst

Julia Tulloh

Why Eurovision 2014 was a bit disappointing

No one watches Eurovision to discover surprise new talent, or even to hear good singing. I watch it for the kitschy, pop-tastic visual onslaught which rarely fails to assault viewers. Read more »

Gabrielle

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Beyond tics, limps and prosthetics

Think of a disability – mental or physical – and there’s sure to be a film that features it. What about giving big roles to actors who actually live with the disability they’re depicting? Now that would be authentic. Read more »

Under the Skin

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Size Matters

Bigger isn’t always better, but some films will open themselves up to you and pour themselves out in new ways when you see them on a cinema screen. Read more »

Babadook

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Bad Mothers

Movies – especially horror and psychological thrillers – have always loved to explore and exorcise our deepest fears, and when it comes to mothers those fears are many. Read more »

5881861191_90de8b5bc9

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Making trolls eat their words

If we’re not conscious of a troll’s desired response, we risk inadvertently encouraging further trolling by allowing ourselves to be played. Read more »

filter

Reality vs. Instagram

It’s been over three years since Instagram launched, and we’re still not sure whether processing a photograph might be considered akin to doctoring a memory. Read more »

2014 Budget

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Could we crowdfund the dole?

Following the announcement of the 2014 budget, the director of a leading arts organisation posed a question on Facebook: ‘What recourse do the people have to stop these changes? What are next steps? Would be curious to know of any other effective measures to get the message across… apart from complaining on Twitter.’ Read more »

tumblr_inline_n6wz16ohb91r8e10g

Danielle Binks

YA is the New Black

Apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. Read more »

A Little Pretty Pocket Book

Danielle Binks

Who run the book world? GIRLS!

‘It’s no wonder boys aren’t reading – the children’s book market is run by women.’ So claimed the headline of an April article in The Times.

*Cue Liz Lemon eye-roll* Read more »

The Fault in Our Stars

Danielle Binks

The Fault in the Cult of John Green

I like John Green as much as the next YA-aficionado. I’ve snot-cried through his books, and chuckled over his YouTube videos. But now it’s time to talk about the media-led oversaturation of John Green, and the insulting way he’s been heralded as the saviour of young adult fiction. Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

The Knife

Chad Parkhill

Never Settled: The Knife’s Shaken-Up Versions

Making live electronic music engaging is a difficult task, and The Knife’s Silent Shout tour shows a band committed to breaking the visual cliché of performers standing still behind banks of electronic equipment. Read more »

Tori Amos

Chad Parkhill

Loving (and hating) Tori Amos

Tori Amos is hardly to blame for the existence of her fans’ expectations, nor for their disappointment when her work does not live up to them – but that doesn’t prevent that disappointment from feeling intensely personal. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »

deadwood-03-1024

Zora Sanders

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Zora Sanders defends Highbrow TV

I’m going to be honest with you. I feel a little guilty being gifted highbrow TV as a subject to defend. Highbrow TV doesn’t need a defender! It’s a battle that has been won! Highbrow TV is downright fucking awesome and every single person reading this already knows it. Read more »