The Counselor is a Ridley Scott film, from a script by Cormac McCarthy, due to be released in theaters on October 25th, and McCarthy’s screenplay has been published in book form by Vintage International ahead of the movie’s release. The characters in the screenplay will all be portrayed by A-list celebrities, and the actors fit their roles so well it helps to have them in mind when discussing the screenplay as a work of literature.
Michael Fassbender plays the titular role of the Counselor, a high-profile lawyer who lands himself and his fiancé, Penélope Cruz, into the middle of a murky cocaine deal with Mexican drug lords. Except for some intensely frightening references and one incredible phone conversation, the drug lords themselves never take center screen. But Fassbender’s partners-in-crime—both extremely well-drawn, fun and generally sleazy characters—serve to heighten the evil lurking on the supply-side of the deal.
Javier Bardem is the counterpoint to the cerebral Counselor, a partied-out club owner who, in the trailers at least, looks perpetually close to an overdose of both amphetamines and hair-gel. Rounding out the trio is a world-wise Brad Pitt in full-on scruffy-western mode, who primarily functions to remind Fassbender of the excremental depth steadily rising about the Counselor’s person.
Finally, there are the women: Cruz and Cameron Diaz. Except for the odd case of Outer Dark, McCarthy has not historically written women characters. He has created two extremely memorable ones here. They are both incredibly fun and alluring characters that critics will surely have much to say about, but here it will suffice to say that Cruz is the good girl and Diaz the very, very bad one, and both wield their sexuality much as Anton Chigurh employed his airgun in No Country for Old Men.
This will inevitably be a very entertaining movie, but McCarthy is our greatest living writer, so it is very likely he intends to do more than entertain us here. When I first heard about the subject of the movie, I immediately thought of Blood Meridian, which is—for those who have not read it—an ultra-violent description of a frontier war taking place along the Mexican/American border in the mid-1800s. The plot of this book is really beside the point; the substance of the book lies in the frontier.
A frontier, of course, literally means the border between two countries, but for McCarthy, the frontier is also the border between what we call “civilization” and absolute anarchy. A civilized society is a shared contract among its people: we agree on laws, a way of living, and, often, what constitutes moral behavior. Blood Meridian shows the inherent violence in advancing the frontier, but also how frontiers exist within the individual. We all have standards that we will not cross and our own moral compass; yet we become most alive when we live close to these frontiers and demarcate them within ourselves, staking out the interior territory that we eventually come to call our souls.
Blood Meridian is an important reference point with regard to The Counselor, because for all intents and purposes, the literal frontier in America, and arguably the world, is closed. For better or for worse, the globe has been marked up with lines and there are no places a person can go to experience and explore an uncharted frontier. But the drug violence in Mexico has, nearly unbelievably, begun to change this. We hear reports about how Mexico is sectioned off by areas of cartel rule, and the frontiers between cartels are places where violence nearly unimaginable to our “civilized” minds occurs on a daily basis. These frontiers are opening up again, and this in turn brings new internal frontiers, new standards of morality and ways of living.
Why Fassbender’s character gets involved in this mess is inexplicable until one considers the frontier. He is already wealthy, and is loved by an unbelievably beautiful and passionate woman. He is initially the least interesting person in the movie – when his character mingles among the outlandish Bardem, Pitt, and Diaz, you constantly wonder why he—an upscale attorney—is there at all. But that is precisely the point. McCarthy insists that there is a longing for the frontier in some people, a longing not just to do something dangerous, but to do something where they can explore and stake out their internal boundaries. Here, in the Age of Starbucks, nearly two centuries after the American frontier has been closed, this longing for a frontier seems like a virtuous trait, and surely there are aspects of it that are; but with Fassbender it is shown to be an addiction that is ultimately as destructive and consuming as any drug.
This is an incredibly good screenplay on its own, but in particular when viewed in the context of McCarthy’s oeuvre. It functions both as a fun action piece and also carries a deeper meaning to the viewer familiar with the themes McCarthy treats in his fiction. But there is a chance that McCarthy may get panned for this movie. There are several stunning flashes of writing in the script, but compared to, say, No Country for Old Men, there are many more instances of Tarantino-style hustler-talk and ridiculous instances of overblown, Hollywood sexuality. McCarthy does not need to write like this and some may take him to task for dumbing down his usual earth-moving prose.
The problem with movie adaptations is that there is really no place to put the narration — and especially the narration of McCarthy, which originates from no character and rains down on the reader from above like the stone tablets on Moses. No Country for Old Men was a brilliant film because it managed to transform the narration into a spectacularly beautiful film where images managed to carry the weight of McCarthy’s words. A screenplay has no place for narration (let’s not even entertain the notion of voiceover) so the weight of meaning must be conveyed through dialogue, character and images. McCarthy often puts a silent yet observant character at the middle of his novels — think of “the kid” in Blood Meridian — and the very passivity of this character serves to channel and amplify the narration. In The Counselor, Fassbender serves in this capacity. He sits at the center of a maelstrom of violence, passion, and glib trash-talk, and though he says very little, he holds the key to the greatness of this script. There is an incredibly deep story–the story of the frontier–sitting behind the Hollywood dialogue and violence, and Fassbender’s reactions to the interior frontiers being advanced within himself are what will unlock the deeper meanings McCarthy embeds into this flashy movie.
The key, then, will be Fassbender’s performance. At one point, Bardem’s character asks the Counselor if he knows why women find him attractive. Fassbender doesn’t know, but Bardem tells him, “They can sniff out the moral dilemma. The paradox.” Bardem is speaking, of course, about the frontier, and if Fassbender can capture the essence of this flawed, self-destructive, yet strangely virtuous and altogether human lust, he will make the movie as great as it deserves to be.[subscribe2]