Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

The Counselor and Tragic Recognition

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

The Counselor and Tragic Recognition

Article excerpt

The Counselor (both Cormac McCarthy's screenplay and Ridley Scott's film adaptation) has received a markedly cool reception, and there are some good reasons for this.1 It is in several ways derivative of McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, which itself began as a screenplay. Both involve failed drug deals on the Texas-Mexico border. Both involve American protagonists who are in too deep and who ultimately get their innocent lovers killed. Both feature bizarre murder technology, with the hit man Anton Chigurh's pneumatic cattle gun in No Country giving way to the cartel's "bolito" in The Counselor. And while the two narratives of hunted Americans do unfold differently, this is not necessarily in The Counselor's favor. The plot of No Country is a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse, with Chigurh pursuing Llewellyn Moss and Sheriff Bell pursuing them both. The plot of The Counselor is markedly more diffuse and confusing, with none of the major characters directly involved in the action of the drug deal.

But traversing the same territory is not always derivative. Readers of the Border Trilogy, with its remarkable iterations of the same epic journey, are well aware of McCarthy's ability to reinvent his own material. And in at least one regard, McCarthy's return to familiar themes in The Counselor allows him to crystalize long-standing concerns. As Willard Greenwood notes, "McCarthy's books evince a tragic narrative arc that proceeds as follows: a main character, always male, intentionally engages in action-often in the form of a quest-and is gradually destroyed by the convergence of events of his own making and those beyond his control" (15). In No Country for Old Men, this narrative arc is paired with musings on fate, chance, and freedom that evoke the classic concerns of tragedy.2 The Counselor offers an even more explicit engagement with the genre.

At first glance, this engagement may seem like a rather straightforward adherence to Aristotelian conventions.3 But on closer examination, The Counselors unflinching look at horrific cartel violence explicitly raises questions that have long animated critical debate about tragedy. Is it more about the existential plight of a lone individual or the political crisis of a community? Is tragic recognition a matter of stoic acceptance or solidarity with the suffering? Does tragedy veil particular contingent instances of loss and violence as immutable aspects of the human condition? Is true tragedy resolutely pessimistic? If so, is tragedy effectively dead in the modern West, which has inherited religions of messianic hope and mythologies of secular progress? Or do these currents open up the possibility of a new form of tragedy? The Counselor raises all of these questions.

Arguably McCarthy's bleakest work since Blood Meridian, it would appear to reassure a critic like George Steiner who worries that modern optimism has all but killed tragedy. The screenplay seems to suggest that some sort of pessimistic acceptance of the flux of life might be the best response to this violent, chaotic world. As we will see below, this is the recognition that the cartel boss leads the Counselor toward after his fiancée has been abducted. Yet the screenplay also leaves open the slightest of openings for an alternative reading, one in which its resolute bleakness and violence themselves paradoxically call forth a sort of radical hope. The Counselor's early conversation with the jeweler in Amsterdam provides a path toward this very different sort of recognition, a path that the Counselor ultimately follows when he spurns the cartel boss's advice and goes to Juárez in search of Laura. The brutal conclusion of the Counselor's quest would seem to vindicate the boss, but the ending of the screenplay can also be read as forcing the audience to take up the choice between pessimistic acceptance or radical hope.

At first blush The Counselor seems to follow traditional Aristotelian conventions. …

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