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.

9781925266115

S.A. Jones

Light and Shade: Myfanwy Jones’ Leap

Grief, like depression, is potentially difficult material for a novelist to handle. To feel real, the reader has to be close enough to feel the raw, howling pain. But the reader needs reprieve too. It’s a balance of light and shade that Myfanwy Jones pulls off in her second novel, Leap. Read more »

the-story-of-the-lost-child

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their August picks

Looking for a book recommendation? After a busy month dominated by the Melbourne Writers Festival’s huge range of events, staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading. Read more »

daniel-handler

Kate Harper

‘I think about terrible things happening’: An interview with Daniel Handler

Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive can be read as tales of wonder. Kate Harper chats to Handler ahead of his upcoming Melbourne appearances. Read more »

One-Direction

Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1

Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »

wolfpack-1024

Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »

f9a2809e-97eb-400d-b491-b4b6a6f09930-2060x1236

Clem Bastow

Telling Stories: Women screenwriters and the obligation to represent

There is something in the recent call to arms for female writers and directors to ‘tell your story’ that leaves me feeling bereft, not vindicated. The idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell. Read more »

actf_rtt2_hero

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 »

golden-age-of-television

Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

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 »

Edinburgh

Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »

Resized__863

Jane Howard

A Mess of a Brain: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

In some ways it seems like an impossible task to take Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and translate it to any other art form. How to find a life for a book that is so internal, so unrelenting, in anything other than the pure words of its narrator as they appear on the page? Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »