For all his strengths as a writer, Cormac McCarthy has never been particularly subtle when it comes to dialogue. For a film that consists mostly of people talking, The Counselor is a film where the dialogue exists in this strange space of being well-written, fascinating to listen to, but ultimately jarring. Larger than life characters like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men or Judge Holden in the novel Blood Meridian feel right making the kind of moral pontifications that McCarthy is great at writing.
It feels disingenuous coming from characters as affluent as those who make up the cast of The Counselor. Everyone is a degree removed from the griminess of evil that pervades McCarthy’s other stories. In some cases, they aren’t even aware of the events of destruction and suffering their acts of greed put into action. Instead of exploring this strange disconnect, McCarthy writes as if these characters see their own wickedness instead of living in the space of denial.
Performances also must be considered. Some actors just don’t feel right delivering McCarthy dialogue. Michael Fassbender’s best moments of acting are when he’s not speaking and Cameron Diaz, who has to deliver perhaps the most important bit of McCarthy dialogue, isn’t able to sell the depth of the lines with even a bit of conviction. Javier Bardem, Bruno Ganz and Brad Pitt are better suited to the material, in part, because they’re able to convey a sense of personality that feels right for a McCarthy story. Everyone else comes across as too earnest, dry or placid to be in a McCarthy story.
The tragedy of it all is that most of the important instigating events exist outside of the actual characters in the story. There’s an entire subplot of the drug run which is the impotence for a lot of McCarthy’s moralizing. This subplot would make a far better McCarthy story than main plot. Most of the best scenes in the film involve characters that we might only see for a couple of scenes as they briefly enter the story of several barrels of drugs being smuggled in a septic truck. I’d buy the driver delivering McCarthy dialogue more than Michael Fassbender in his slick 3-piece suit.
Still, in spite of the many failings in the context and delivery of McCarthy’s writing, there’s something undeniably enjoyable about it. There are enough moments that make The Counselor a far more enthralling experience than it deserves to be. Just about any scene with Brad Pitt or the early dinner scene with Fassbender and Penélope Cruz are moments that make the film feel worth slogging through a series of poor decisions.
And speaking of poor decisions, there are certain scenes that just don’t seem to have any point whatsoever. One in particular has become talked about quite a lot and in the context of the film it contributes nothing and comes across as McCarthy trying to be shocking, but more in a way that feels shamefully tasteless and not something truly revolting like moments in stories like The Road or Blood Meridian.
It’s surprising given that one of the great strengths of the film is how it restrains and reins back the violence. One of the most powerful scenes in the film involves the idea of a violence act. We just know from past conversations and from the inference of images what likely happened and the fact we don’t even see it as a scene that gets cut off or where the act happens off-screen somehow makes it even more chilling and haunting. It’s a moment like this where the removal of the characters from evil has weight in the story, but it comes far too late.
The Counselor contains the interesting dialogue and nuanced themes McCarthy but it exists with set dressings that echo hollow the second you try to tap them for any semblance of depth and complexity. It’s a shadow of better stories McCarthy has already told. It would be best to seek all of those out first, but if you’ve still got a taste for more, The Counselor will give you something, but it won’t whet your appetite.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing