Cormac McCarthy is an acquired taste. His novels, which are the closest thing to a modern-day William Faulkner you’re ever going to read, require a certain level of commitment and perseverance. Yet, his writing has translated well to the screen — The Road and No Country for Old Men were both exceptional films, if bleak. So, I went into The Counselor not unfamiliar with the source. However, The Counselor is not an adaptation of a McCarthy novel — he wrote the screenplay. And herein may lie the problem with the movie.
Make no mistake — I still think McCarthy is the most profound novelist in America today. He has a stunning body of work that often explores human nature’s darker side, those not-talked-about impulses and motivations that drive and sometimes consume us — and our ability, or inability, to deal with those impulses in a human society that strives for conformity and morality.
And when a novel of such weight is adapted to the screen, it undergoes a certain amount of translation and/or interpretation that, if done right, makes for a downright startling movie (the two films mentioned above, for example).
But in this case, McCarthy’s work didn’t go through the adaptive process first; as he is the screenwriter, what he wrote is what was shot. And as compelling as it is, the movie seems at once overly ambitious and strangely incomplete.
Director Ridley Scott can still make a breathtaking movie, and he does here, from the stunning Cameron Diaz to the details in Javier Bardem’s ludicrously decorated drug kingpin abode. But the characters moving through Scott’s expertly rendered landscape are doing just that — moving through it. They do a lot of talking: about doing bad things, about the consequences of doing bad things, the morality of doing bad things … you get the picture. But, with one exception (no spoilers), they don’t really DO any bad things. Each of these characters (portrayed by a wonderful cast of Michael Fassbender, Diaz, Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz) are intriguing, but we learn next to nothing about them. They are locked into a life-or-death, all-bets-are-off predicament, and we know very little about the circumstances that brought them together.
McCarthy is known for his violent prose and this is a strangely violent movie. There isn’t much, but when there is … it causes you to flinch and squirm. He’s also known for his penetrating looks into the human soul, but The Counselor is reduced to a great deal of exposition, in the form of curious double-speak dialogue, about the nature of humanity. Ruben Blades, putting in a performance that soars because of the understated style he always brings, nearly steals the entire movie with a beautiful monologue — until it goes on about two minutes too long.
A McCarthy novel is best enjoyed when the reader takes the time to let the words and the themes and the imagery wash over him and become fully immersed in what McCarthy is saying. The Counselor felt like being thrown into the deep end of the pool before being yanked right back out.