Friday, October 25, 2013

Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor

in the Counselor people say lots of banal sentences like this (above)
convinced that they're telling you the wisdom of the ages... 

In America Cormac McCarthy is unassailable. He has a cast iron literary reputation, a legion of fans and highly placed champions in the upper echelons of American literary culture. All with good reason. His Tennessee novels are masterpieces and Blood Meridian is one of the greatest American novels of the last 50 years. But (and you knew a but was coming didn't you?) just as his reputation has grown over the last twenty years so his actual novels have - in my opinion - declined. I reckon we hit Peak McCarthy probably somewhere in the Blood Meridian/All The Pretty Horses years. I wasn't a huge fan of The Road which had great stretches of purple prose (and that's rich coming from me, but hey a cat can look at a king, right?), I found No Country For Old Men to be a wee bit hacky with the lyrical prose attempting to cover up gaping plot holes and some dodgy Palinesque tea party politics. And as for parts 2 and 3 of the Border Trilogy, they were, in retrospect, grim and rather tedious sub-par efforts. 
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So what to make of The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy's first foray into screenwriting at the age of 80? Maybe I'm not the right person to ask. Maybe you should ask a true McCarthy fan or maybe the screenplay should only be read in the context of the film, a film I have not yet seen. As you can see I'm doing a lot of hedging here because I found The Counselor screenplay to be a pretty excruciating business. It's the story of a lawyer, The Counselor, who gets mixed up with the Mexican Cartel and an exotic, beautiful woman. That's really all you need to know. It's McCarthy's universe so you understand that all is not going to go well and evil will triumph in the end. The Counselor reads like pretty much every American noir movie of the last 20 years and no cliche is left in the box: the femme fatale, the Mexicans, the drugs, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the naive guy in over his head, misogyny, a reactionary ideology with an ever so subtle racism. (I expect you've noticed that for all Hollywood's supposed liberalism the vast majority of its films are deeply conservative.) We even get a cat stroking villain, although McCarthy must have thought that that was ok because the cat is a cheetah. 
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There are certain conventions in noir and if you buy into the logic of the story you can sort of forget all the cliches and just go with it but here I couldn't go with it because what really banjaxes up The Counselor is the dialogue. It's a complete embarrassment from start to finish. Humans don't talk like this. Not even in a David Mamet movie. Corny doesn't come close to describing this stuff. Go on read it here for yourself if you don't believe me. It's as if Cormac McCarthy has decided to channel not Quentin Tarantino but whoever the guys were who wrote one of those many post Pulp Fiction rip offs like Two Days In The Valley or Destiny Turns On The Radio. Yikes. The cod philosophy and the unerotic "dirty talking" made me hang my head in shame for the man who wrote Child of God and Outer Dark. If there's a precise inverse of the authenticity and integrity that someone like Louis CK brings to his screenplays The Counselor is exactly it. 
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But, of course, none of this matters. The Counselor has a 10 million dollar marketing campaign behind it and is completely critic proof. And at least three times in his career Ridley Scott has turned pretty ordinary scripts into cinematic works of genius. Its the final film that matters not the screenplay. And I guarantee you one thing: the film WILL be better than the screenplay because the screenplay is mortifying. I suppose the only long term damage will be to McCarthy's reputation: critics, especially British critics, will use the screenplay of The Counselor to prove that they were right to be skeptical and that the emperor really did have no clothes after all.