The Counselor │ Review

(Vintage International)

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.

Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay gets published.

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]

About Dave Thieme

Dave Thieme
Dave Thieme is a professional software developer who tries his best not to let his day job interfere with his longtime interest in literature and writing. He was a doctoral candidate in the University of Chicago’s English program, where he also completed coursework in creative writing. He is interested in the origins of consciousness and artificial intelligence and is currently working on a novel exploring these themes.


  1. Have u actually seen the movie or are u just singing Dixie ?

    • Dave Thieme

      Unfortunately I can neither sing nor whistle Dixie: the movie doesn’t come out until October 25, and I don’t think even the ghost of Roger Ebert could get an advance viewing of this one. This review is of the screenplay, which is published and available now by clicking on the link at the top of the review. I for one am hoping it’s as good as it reads. We will know soon!

    • Well, I’ve read the screenplay, and it is so atrocious that I’ve no idea what you read, particularly because there is no way that the “paradox” reference, or anything in the script, had anything whatsoever to do with the frontier (in fact, it may be the only intentionally funny line, showing that Reiner knows nothing about women). This will be McCarthy’s great embarrassment, as it’s obvious he knows nothing about women, sex, or the drug trade. And I couldn’t go four lines without squinting at the awful dialogue. “Blood Merdian” was great, but “The Counselor” is awful.

  2. Dave Thieme

    Ahhh, M you ruined my night. Thank you for commenting, but after having written what this gentleman had prior to 1990 there is and never shall be a “great embarrassment” of Cormac McCarthy. It’s kind of like Michael Jordan playing baseball; I pretty much think he can do what he wants at this point. But as a fellow reader of the screenplay and a victim of Transformers One thru Three, and a fellow scholar of “Blood Meridian,” I very cordially pose the three questions to you:

    1) How does this dialogue in the Diamond Dealers’ shop strike you: “The heat of any culture is to be found in the nature of the hero? Who is that man who is revered? In the classical world it is the warrior. But in the western world it is the man of God. From Moses to Christ. The prophet. The penitent. Such a figure is unknown to the Greeks. Unheard of. Unimaginable. Because you can only have a man of God, not a man of gods.” Although I went partially deaf during mid-Transformers era, I don’t recall hearing dialogue like this in a movie originating from the fourteenth-circle-of-hell-they-call-Hollywood nowadays.

    2) Did you notice Reiners’ haircut and glasses? He’s probably less Judge Holden than a Toadvine here, don’t you think?

    3) What do you think happened in the jakes at the end of “Blood Meridian” between Holden and the Kid? I actually don’t know, but I’ve got an idea and I’d rather talk about that than argue about a movie nobody’s seen yet.

    Anyway, thanks again for commenting, but I also sincerely hope you are wrong. I hope McCarthy gets a deep cut of the $21.54 I plan on spending on a movie ticket and special Holden-sized popcorn bucket offer in major theaters on Friday night.

    • Great questions, which I’ll give my best shot, in reverse order: 3) after the judge and the man have their “war is god” speech, the Judge kidnaps and molests a girl, while the kid/man goes to a brothel and picks out a “midget” and fails to be aroused, then he stumbles upon the Judge in the jakes, who greets him “into the fold” and gives him the girl, then goes to dance, celebrating that he has converted the kid into a monster. I think the reactions of the onlookers are exactly like the Glanton gang’s horror of the Judge’s pedophilia; they do nothing about it (and sex is the only thing McCarthy doesn’t like depicting). My reasoning for this explanation is very long, but that’s for another time… 2) I’d agree about your Toadvine explanation; moreover, I believe Malkina is supposed to be life itself, as Chigurh? was supposed to be death/fate (in theory, brilliant, in execution laughable. see Cameron Diaz deliver her awful lines in the “Temperature” clip of The Counselor, you can find on youtube). 1) When you have the nerve to preach, as McCarthy does, as through the jeweler’s mouth, you’d better be damn close to right. McCarthy is wrong, both historically, and from an evolutionary biology/psychology perspective. Also, as someone who writes, I see McCarthy’s technique too obviously. Jeweler (paraphrasing): “Oh, let’s go back to talking about jewelry. You don’t want to here me blab. Oh, you do? Ok. Blah Blah.” I understand the idea of praising a film for having complex dialogue, but it doesn’t mean it’s good, and it doesn’t mean hollywood will be encouraged to make more good movies. Must add: I gave zero &*(^’s about Laura’s fate, so it seemed utterly pornographic and exploitative. Also, I think “No Country” is one of the greatest films, but more to the Coen brothers’ credit than McCarthy. It has much to do with them re-writing Sheriff Bell’s character.

    • Dave Thieme

      Wonderful comments, M. I appreciate the reply and I had not considered your reading of the ending of Blood Meridian. I too agree that putting that dialogue in the mouth of the Jeweler was a little coarse, but I bought it up in conjunction with the ending of Meridian for a reason. It’s obvious that at some level the Judge represents war. It has been discussed in academic literature that McCarthy’s violence in some of these books is in reaction to the war in Vietnam, and that the difference between “old” McCarthy and the “new” McCarthy is the difference between Vietnam and the Gulf War(s): the first was a traditional ugly ground war; the latter a war of technology, which is now increasingly fought by drones. It is one of the central problems, I think, in McCarthy’s writing is that war does serve in some necessary component to man’s (and here I do really mean “man”) psyche. So in the absence of a real frontier — real places to go and explore — war can serve as an ugly proxy to this inherent need for exploration, of something “new.” So if you follow this line of reasoning, when the Judge says he will never die at the end of Blood Meridian, what he means is that this desire for newness — which I kind of ham-handedly called the “frontier” — will never die. The point is that modernity has basically erased the frontier of violence even from war, which was itself a twisted desire for the more wholesome desire for the newness of the frontier. So yes, McCarthy talks about what he knows best – masculinity. In the beginning men had a lust for exploration in the literal sense which satisfied a parallel urge in the psyche; when that ran out Greeks and everybody until the mid-1900s shipped off their young men off to war, and that served as a proxy for the self-discovery that literal exploration could provide; and now, finally, that outlet is erased as wars become video-games fought by drones who kill real people. So there’s an inherent flaw in men, which perhaps started out as an ethically good desire, but became a core evil even by Hellenic times. So, yes I agree, McCarthy knows nothing about women and, yes, this and all of his other works are about men. An optimistic person could hope that the nature of man can change, but modern history is showing that it can’t in the short term. Now, finally to my point: we are at a moment where this inherent desire for newness in man needs to find an new outlet, and one of the potential manifestations of this is manufacturing drug violence and escalating that into war. So this is what I found interesting in the script, and why I think the movie could be good if Fassbender captures this. Can you make a better, more cerebral movie about this? Of course, but maybe McCarthy wanted to see if he could sneak this into a mainstream movie, which unfortunately mandates that things be included that he cares little about, such as, well, women and “normal” heterosexual desire. Maybe he just wanted to cash a check? I don’t know. I was being generous here, but partly because I read the dialogue as being intentionally stupid to prove some of these points. And partly because I deeply admire everything McCarthy has contributed to the world through his works. I do hope that the actors are somewhat self-aware of all this, but maybe I’m hoping too much. In any case, thank you for your thoughtful comments and for reading mine. In the words of that archetypal modern man Ron Burgundy, I am glad that we can seem to “agree to disagree” about this. I wish you the best in your writing, M.

    • speaking of Burgandy, the trailer for the new film (especially the rollover) is probably the funniest trailer I’ve ever seen. BTW, someone broke the review embargo for the Counselor:

  3. Dave Thieme

    The reviews are in! And decidedly and totally mixed. Richard Roeper gives it four stars: and says it “glistens like a diamond and cuts like a serrated knife. ” The Las Vegas Times calls it a “Completely Disjointed Mess” : I didn’t think it was possible, but we might both be right. What fun. You stay classy, San Diego.

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