The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5
“WONDER BREAD IT AIN’T”
Before 2007, it’s not like Cormac McCarthy was an unknown. His novel All the Pretty Horses had won the National Book Award in 1992 and was adapted into a film eight years later (starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz). And even before the publication of All the Pretty Horses, he had gained a substantial amount of praise for his novel Suttree (1979), won a MacArthur Grant in 1981, and published arguably his most critically-acclaimed novel Blood Meridian a few years after that. Harold Bloom named him as one of the four living novelists that mattered, and many other critics have volleyed similar praise in his direction, but as far as the public at large goes, McCarthy still hadn’t really crossed over to the mainstream. It was in 2007 that he became a household name (or as big a household name as a novelist can be without writing books about boy wizards). In March of that year, Oprah placed McCarthy’s novel The Road on her booklist, and a month later it won the Pulitzer Prize; come November, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of another of his novels, No Country for Old Men, was released to universal acclaim, and it eventually won best picture at the Academy Awards the following February.
I only mention this because, though novelists have long been scriptdoctors in Hollywood, editing screenplays to supplement their incomes (Faulkner and Fitzgerald are only two of many), I can’t think of any other cases where a literary novelist wrote an original screenplay, managed to get the film financed and produced, and stayed on set throughout the filming, weighing in on everything from casting to editing. I suppose it’s the kind of thing that a writer can only convince the notoriously hardheaded bigwigs in Hollywood to allow after having a year like he had in 2007: Oprah’s Book Club, Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award.
And so we have The Counselor, written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and showcasing an all-star cast including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt. The plot, what little of it there is, revolves around “the Counselor,” an unnamed lawyer played by Fassbender, getting involved with drug trafficking. The first half of the film, it seems his associates (Bardem and Pitt) spend the majority of the time warning him not to get involved, and then suddenly, the shit hits the fan, and it’s too late, and they’re telling him it’s too late, and there’s nothing to be done. It’s a film about action (though it ironically contains little), and about the reactions to those actions, the repercussions of our choices.
It’s an odd film whose action is truncated and whose dialogue is grandiloquent. It refuses to play by the usual crime-thriller rules, and so something about it feels…off. As Manohla Dargis wrote in her New York Times review of the film, “Mr. McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life.” Luckily, Dargis doesn’t think that’s a bad thing–and neither do I. His lack of experience as a screenwriter gives him some freedom. This freedom allows the film to move in weird ways, to elide certain elements we’ve come to expect from the movies, and especially of one of this genre. It’s a film that refuses to hold our hands as we make our way through it. It’s bold, it’s brash, it’s a bit over-the-top, its action is gruesome, its sex is unusual, its dialogue is poetic and pompous and perfect–it’s everything Cormac McCarthy novels are, but on a screen instead of a page. In some ways it works, in others it doesn’t, but, for me, it was never anything but a pleasure to experience.
To my surprise, most other critics don’t agree. Lou Limenick said it was “like Traffic on a massive dose of downers,” and others have compared it to Oliver Stone’s abysmal Savages. Andrew O’Hehir went the furthest in his criticism, claiming that McCarthy, Scott, and the cast “could not stop themselves from making the worst movie in the history of the universe.” Really, O’Hehir? The worst movie in the history of the universe? You’ll take the banalities of movies churned out by Hollywood hacks over the oddities here crafted by masters? He preempts this very question, and I have to admit that even though I think he’s deadwrong in his response, O’Hehir’s got panache and courage in his convictions: “The Counselor is not corporate-crafted cynical crapola designed to deliver a quick payday, after the fashion of most Hollywood movies, which are bad because no one involved claimed authorship, took responsibility, or actually gave a damn. If you eat dinner at Burger King and the food sucks, it’s disingenuous to get all mad about it. This is more like having Alice Waters and Mario Batali labor in the kitchen for a while and then serve you a gray-green burger on Wonder Bread, with what looks like somebody’s pubic hair stuck to it. But surrounded with whimsical garnishes of fresh herbs.”
I can understand his disappointment, but pubes? Come on! I can’t promise you’ll enjoy The Counselor as much as I did, but it’s not the pube-ridden Wonder Bread burger of O’Hehir’s fantasy. It’s just a film that’s unlike most other films–maybe a bit weird, maybe a bit difficult, maybe a bit pretentious, maybe a bit overambitious–but even if it fails (which I’m not entirely convinced it does), it’s absolutely worth seeing. If not for the rarity of a celebrated literary fiction writer getting carte blanche to realize his unique cinematic vision, then at least because it’s the third installment of the Javier Bardem Crazy Hair Trilogy (after No Country for Old Men and Skyfall).
The Counselor is a film written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott. It stars Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt. A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of the 20th Century Fox
Design by Marie Havens
Film Still from The Counselor, Photography Courtesy of 20th Century Fox