Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Salvaging the Counselor: Watching Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott's Really Trashy Movie

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Salvaging the Counselor: Watching Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott's Really Trashy Movie

Article excerpt

In 2013, The Counselor, directed by Academy Award winner Ridley Scott and written by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy, bombed in the American box office.1 Set in contemporary El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, the film observes the consequences for an unnamed American lawyer after he joins the U.S.-Mexican drug trade. The rest, as one might expect, is grim. Committing to a one-time deal trafficking twenty million dollars of cocaine, which is quickly stolen by competing factions, the counselor (Michael Fassbender) is overrun by cartel members, hired kidnappers, plotting women, beheadings, snuff films, and sex scenes "too gynecological to be sexy" (93). Though starring bona fide Hollywood talent, including Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Brad Pitt, and Cameron Diaz, The Counselor baffled, if not outraged, opening audiences with its lengthy ruminations on the weight of greed, desire, and choice in the face of grisly cartel violence. Perhaps due to its strange mixture of the philosophical and the pulpy, the film became one of 2013s most unconventional and puzzling mainstream films.

Rather unusually, given his reluctance to give interviews, McCarthy himself commented that the counselor is "a classic figure in tragedy," a "decent guy who gets up one morning and decides to do something wrong. And that's all it takes" (The Counselor, Commentary). Stacey Peebles notes how the counselor "fits the generally Aristotelean model of a man of status whose hamartia ... sets him on a path that leads to his downfall" (5).2 With a plan to finance his marriage with a drug deal, the counselor's gamble fails: cartel kidnappers capture his fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz), outside of the El Paso airport. The news of her execution, which is sent to him in the form of a snuff film, becomes part and parcel of his tragic punishment. The counselor's fall, however, is not the only tragic element at play, Russell Hillier explains. Working with Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), the counselor learns of Malkina (Cameron Diaz), an intelligent and attractive woman of mysterious origins. Noting the differences between the screenplay and the film, Hillier argues that Malkina's story "rivals a Jacobean revenge tragedy in [her] ingenuity and method" (151). After the men are eliminated, she organizes a cyber-hit on Westray's offshore savings and stays alive in the end.

Though McCarthy and his critics see the film in tragic terms, we should not forget that the counselor inhabits a cartoonish setting: characters own collared cheetahs, commit sexual acts with Ferraris, and have stylized names like "Wire-Man," "Jefe," and "The Blonde." This is clearly a cinematic world in which lurid spectacle is the rule rather than the exception. In it, for example, we see a character garroted by a make-believe mechanical device called a "bolito," which consists of a motor-driven steel cable that tightens an inexorable noose around a victim's neck until it cuts through vertebrae. Scenes like this remind us that, for all intents and purposes, The Counselor is an unapologetically "trashy" movie, a neo-noir centered on drug war assassinations and a MacGuffin consisting not of Hitchcockian precious stones but rather a septic tank full of cocaine, dead bodies, and excrement.

What this essay proposes, then, is that rather than tragedy, The Counselor should be seen as Hollywood trash, and a special kind of trash at that. The Counselor is a B-movie by A-listers, self-reflexive genre filmmaking bent on investigating the limits of popular entertainment. The Counselor, in this sense, functions a bit like McCarthy's anti-western, Blood Meridian-which is to say, it's an affront to its genre's and its medium's very genetic makeup. McCarthy's screenplay is noir pitched to the era of the drug wars, free trade, and the decentralized corporatization of the globe-noir for the twenty-first century. Despite Scott's striking photography and a catalog of stars, The Counselor's frame is littered with the dross of the drug trade and late capitalism (essentially, one and the same). …

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