10 Reasons Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” is Probably Going to be Terrible

Poster for McCarthy’s new film.

I love Cormac McCarthy, a lot. Ever since I read Blood Meridian for a Freshman Composition class (no, really) I’ve been in love with the man’s prose. I read all his novels, wrote my Master’s thesis on him, visited his archives at TSU San Marcos and read his original manuscripts, taught The Road in several courses, published two papers on him in literary journals, wrote about his works for CaPC (here, and here, and here), and was even quoted in Wikipedia on No Country for Old Men (no, really).

So, believe me when I say that I want The Counselor to be amazing. But after watching the just released trailer and reading some reports from those who have read the script, I think I may have to counsel against it.

5 Things you need to know:

1. The Counselor is McCarthy’s first screenplay to be made into a major motion picture. He’s had some fantastic books adapted into films (All the Pretty Horses, The Road) and even one good book which was adapted into a fantastic movie (No Country for Old Men), but this is his first screenplay to be made into a film.

2. The cast and director are pretty great. Ridley Scott, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz. And to top it off, McCarthy seems to have taken a very active role in the filming process, which could mean that the final film does justice to his screenplay.

3. It comes out October 25th.

4. McCarthy’s works have traditionally raised challenging and valuable questions about the presence of evil in the world and our ability to control it. His last two works, The Road and The Sunset Limited have explicitly dealt with faith, the existence of God, and even Christianity in particular.

5. The plot: “The film tells the story of a lawyer, played by Fassbender, who finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.”

10 Reasons why it’s probably gonna be terrible, but I hope not (no, really): 

1. The trailer:

2. There are a few signature McCarthy elements here (drugs, violence, ethical quandaries), but on the whole it feels like it could have been written by any number of Breaking Bad-inspired, starving Hollywood screenwriters.

Anton Chigurh

3. There’s nothing really unsettling, except Cameron Diaz crawling on the hood of an SUV (no, really). One of McCarthy’s greatest gifts is the ability to make the reader (or viewer) profoundly uncomfortable, even disoriented. Often, this disorientation comes from some deep evil in the world: Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, Anton Chigurh in No Country, the whole wasteland in The Road. What’s unsettling about a drug deal gone wrong?

4. According to trusted sources who have read a version of the screenplay, the film is a vice/virtue story. This troubles me. The only promising bit of dialogue in the trailer is when Javier Bardem tells Michael Fassbender (the lawyer who has decided to make one big drug deal to get rich) that if he goes through with the deal, “you eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.”

Really, Mr. Drug Dealer Bardem? Cause, I would think that the only thing surprising about the moral decisions in a huge drug deal would be if they weren’t surprising and disturbing. In a post-Breaking Bad world, I have a hard time feeling compelled to watch a film that shows me that drug dealing is bad and dangerous. At least with Walter White you’re invited to sympathize with him at the beginning; you get why he’s willing to “break bad,” even if you still believe it’s wrong. But I have a hard time sympathizing with a lawyer who learns the hard way that crime doesn’t pay.

I hope I’m wrong here. I hope there’s some deeper, more challenging moral questions in the film, or at least I hope McCarthy draws out some commentary on the nature of human depravity, or something.

5. Penelope Cruz will play a religious character who may be losing her faith. In an interview last year with Collider, she said regarding her role: “it’s a character that has always chosen the light.  Has very particular ideology, is a very religious woman, or has been educated like that and is starting to have doubts about some things.  Or, also starting to feel a curiosity toward the darkness. Also knowing that there is a very big, real danger there.  Life is putting her in that situation where she’s tasting the darkness.”

Okay, so this could actually be a good sign. It’s possible that McCarthy uses Cruz’s character to explore a kind of loss of faith. Since her character is Spanish and McCarthy was raised Catholic, my guess is that her character will be, too. I’m hoping that this might hint at where McCarthy’s coming down on the religion. During his infamous Oprah interview, he said it depended on what day you asked him whether or not he believed in God. Maybe, just maybe Cruz’s character will indicate some more specific religious sympathies, but I doubt it.

6. Early in the creative process, someone got ahold of the screenplay and leaked it. A bunch of McCarthy scholars and super-fans read the script and the rumor is, it’s pretty awful. Many of them felt it was the worst thing McCarthy had written outside of an unpublished screenplay. At least one person thought it was a masterpiece. A few thought it was okay. But the general impression was that the dialogue was poorly written.

7. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the trailer and the screenplay (based on the early reports) is that McCarthy wrote sex scenes. McCarthy, if you didn’t know, is a 80-year-old man who lives a fairly isolated life. Word is the dialogue in these scenes are particularly clumsy and awkward. For example:

8. #HaveYouBeenBad —The worst movie hashtag.

AHHHH SWEEET #WomanCrushWednesday! This Motion Picture is gonna be AWESOME!

9. Since No Country for Old Men, the suspicion among many McCarthy scholars and fans is that his goal has been to make money, quickly. He is a 80-year-old man with a 14-year-old son, and almost his entire life he has done as little as possible, aside from writing. A screenplay from America’s greatest living author surely is worth quite a bit. And you can’t exactly blame the man for wanting to provide for his kid.

10. I am probably just lowering my expectations so I can enjoy it, no matter how bad it is (no, really).

 I really do hope I’m wrong.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Martyn Jones

    Pretty astute. I hope you’re wrong too, though. It’d be nice if this were a decent movie. #haveyoubeenbad #haveyoubeenbad #haveyoubeenbad

  • lewis

    why all the negativity? your a typically cynical film critic who likes to movies fail for some reason. Do you not enjoy a good movie? Because that is what the counselor looks like from its excellent trailers. Plenty of other people are looking forward to this movie and aren’t hoping it bombs unlike you. Lighten up for gods sake.

  • Alan Noble

    Lewis, Please read the last line of my post.

  • Transcend

    I actually like the trailer and am looking forward to the film. I’ve read every McCarthy novel, some twice or more. I see no reason to give any credence to the negative ruminations expressed here. He’s old and has lived an isolated life, so can’t write a sex scene? Come on, any writer as masterful and imaginative as CM, isolated life or not, would not find a sex scene out of reach. He’s never shot at people either, presumably, or been shot at, or been hunted down by a cartel, or been thrown into a Mexican prison, or lived with corpses in a cave, etc. etc., but look at those exquisitely crafted scenes. Cool your speculative jets and enjoy the movie when it comes out.

    PS: Do you really think you know much about his sex life?

  • RichardLPangburn

    Longtime McCarthy fan here (Richard L. on the McCarthy forum). Nice piece, and you say pretty much how I feel too. I read the leaked screenplay composite, if that is what it was. To me, this is McCarthy’s equivalent to Hemingway’s TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. The sex scenes, the pillow talk, the scenes of violence, the otherwise nice people caught up in drug politics.
    Breaking-badly cliched?
    Well, the Diaz character is symbolic too, and hence interesting in light of the naturalism in some of McCarthy’s other works. She is the cat woman, an earth-mother-abed-with-technology, our animal nature stalking around with a materialistic hunger in spite of this country’s utopian ideals or its rationalizing pseudo-logic.
    I think that McCarthy favors spirituality but recognizes that, in the hands of most organized religions, modern churches sell out to materialism, willing to trade blessings in exchange for money and power. Modern churches align their political rhetoric and clout with the monied and powerful, condoning wars, rabid propaganda, greed, and the manipulation of the weak.
    So if the film indeed takes a poke at this, it is not entirely wasted.

  • lpr1836

    One word: Prometheus (h/t to Mark Ggosrich).

  • lpr1836

    Goodrich, not Ggosrich!

  • http://therednotes.wordpress.com/ therednotes

    I’m a fairly big Cormac McCarthy fan, as well. I don’t agree with much of his bleak, Hobbesian outlook, but I like the questions he poses, the prose and the dialogue. I’m also in the camp who’s becoming skeptical about The Counselor.

    I did read the leaked screenplay, and it was pretty awful. The “pillowtalk” dialogue was unrealistic, awkward, clumsy and generally cringe-worthy; the exception, though, the diamond merchant lecture was interesting and well done. And that is scary — a piece of McCarthy authored dialogue where “good” and “well done” are the exceptions. But, I held out because it was reportedly a mid-draft and these things can only be changed as the production process goes on. (As an aside, I remember an interview where McCarthy said that he hated doing movies, particularly after The Gardener’s Son, because everyone else just has their hands in the pot. To be honest, I thought TGD was incredible, if slow. The class analysis contained within the drama is the best as I’ve ever seen, especially considering what was coming out at the time.)

    And then the trailer came out. I can’t get behind Bardem’s silly looking character. He’s completely misplaced given the subject of the film, and looks more like some Jersey Shore caricature rather than a moral-effusing drug dealer. Brad Pitt looks like a weird knock-off of the Cohen’s conception of Carson. And I just can’t suspend belief for the main plot — some rich, high powered lawyer “naively” getting directly involved in the drug trade. “Even though this is all over the news, what could possibly go wrong!”

    I’m going to wait until this comes out on video. I rarely go to the theaters anymore, unless it’s something real special… and, unfortunately, this doesn’t look real special.

    I was also surprised that you brought up something that has been lingering in my head for a while: that it seems like a cash grab for McCarthy. I haven’t seen anyone else who has been willing enough to outright say that. But I agree, nontheless.

  • theredsparrow

    I hope you’re wrong too. I am so happy to live in the era of Cormac McCarthy.

  • Michael Palmquist

    McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian, toppling Moby Dick as the great American novel. But everything else he wrote is supremely over-rated. I’ve read the script and it’s atrocious. But it depicts McCarthy’s idea of evil much, much more than his other works. So that’s one worry you can cross off your list. And because the evil is not embodied by a single, charismatic psycho, it is actually more troublesome. In theory.

    BUT…

    1. One problem (of many) is that he shows violence at the wrong time, and talks about it at the wrong time. Or, in two instances, describes it effectively, and then shows it, utterly gratuitously or even despicably (and I think there’s nothing gratuitous in Blood Meridian).
    2. The dialogue is wooden as all hell.
    3. There is one original element in this whole script, which is that it seems to be a Breaking Bad story (as you said) and then switches to a completely different kind of crime that is only cursorily linked to drugs. But we find that the Counselor himself is really nothing more than a vehicle to get us to the second half of the story, and there’s not enough time left to get us to care about any other character, especially not him.

    4. Overall, the intelligence level of the script is like this: haha, get it? he’s called the counselor, and yet he’s the one always getting counseled. Get it? Get it?
    5. the actors are already getting defensive about the film. I cant blame them for jumping into it, because they all get so many lines. But they know, at least in hindsight, it was a bad career move.

  • Michael Palmquist

    wow. I didn’t get that message at all, SPOILER, SPOILER. Diaz’s character is a childhood victim of why (McCarthy believes) certain men sell drugs in the first place. McCarthy is actually, it seems, giving us the origin of his psychotic uber-villians (Judge Holden and Chigurh(?)), showing them as products of abuse. I didn’t like the script at all. It was original and awful.

  • Michael Palmquist

    it wasn’t a cash grab, in my opinion. It’s awful, but not a cash grab. No Country was an awful book, made into a great film, and I believe that McCarthy knows the Coens made his book seem good. So he’s going out to prove a good movie can be made from a more faithful adaptation of his work. It can’t. Like Hemingway, McCarthy cannot be understood visually, even in his best work. And his very best lines sound ridiculous out loud. No Country worked because Tommy Lee Jones’ character was completely changed, and the whole point of the book was changed as well. In the book, McCarthy showed a man who was outdated for the contemporary world, and the new breed of evil he faced. The Coens changed this to a man who was a permanently “old soul”, and would have never been able to deal with any time or any place. And the Coens showed the villain as nothing new, the same old evil.

  • http://therednotes.wordpress.com/ therednotes

    Well, No Country did have that “You kids get off my lawn” vibe laid on thicker than usual, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s no Blood Meridian or Outer Dark, but it was still a worthy read for me. In fact, I liked it better than Cities of the Plain, which was kind of a bum to read after two fairly good, but accessible books.

    Even so, the dialogue in those books are great, whether or not you read them aloud. And he wrote great dialogue for The Gardener’s Son. But what I saw in that script was really bad. And how the movie looks like it is turning out in the trailers isn’t helping. I still can’t get over the concept.


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