Sin and Consequence in Cormac McCarthy’s "The Counselor"

 
Posted by Wesley on December 11, 2013
 


For about a year, I was looking forward to catching The Counselor, the new crime thriller based on the first original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy (perhaps the greatest living American author), and directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner, Alien), one of the many filmmakers linked to a screen adaptation of McCarthy’s celebrated masterpiece Blood Meridian.

Everything about the film seemed to ensure a memorable night at the movies, including boasting an all-star cast of Hollywood heavyweights and a thematic continuation of the recently expired and much beloved series, Breaking Bad. (Lovers of the show were sure to spot Dean Norris, who played Agent Hank Schrader, appearing briefly in the trailer.)

Early in the week of its release, however, when reviews began to roll into Rotten Tomatoes giving the film a lousy 37% on the site’s splatometer, the consensus seemed to be that The Counselor was just a glamorous cart-load of crap.

I must concur with the dissenting few, critics such as Richard Roeper and Manohla Dargis at The New York Times, who have praised The Counselor as a remarkable film. It was intense, provocative, and quite in keeping with McCarthy’s signature erudite style, expressing his disturbing insights into the darker realities of our human nature.
 
This profound piece of cinematic pulp doesn't treat its audience to just another vacuous attempt at modern day entertainment; its dialogue is not quick, cute, or snappy, but dense and dripping with dread; its thrills don't propel you along for an exhilarating ride, but rather leave you feeling wound-up and whiplashed; and its sexuality, though at times novel and explicit, is in the end far more befuddling than titillating. Granted, on a superficial level The Counselor might be categorized as a crime-thriller featuring Brad Pitt in a supporting role - but on a whole it is miles away from the similarly identifiable Ocean Eleven series. With its disconcerting themes and unsettling philosophical quandaries, it is more on par with Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, a connection also made by Ms. Dargis in her New York Times review.

Although McCarthy’s wont as a storyteller is to leave many of the informational gaps in his plots unfilled, the core conflict in The Counselor is classically straightforward. At its center, it is a tale of the inescapable consequences which come only after repeated cautionary warnings are left unheeded.

Michael Fassbender plays the titular role of a successful lawyer who dresses to the nines, drives a Bentley, and hobnobs with clients and friends who are living lives of lawless luxury. At the same time that he is preparing to propose to his girlfriend, Laura (played by Penelope Cruz) he is also taking part in planning a risky one-time criminal venture involving a rusty old truck hauling a septic-tank chock-full of cocaine.


His associates for the deal, Westray, a sly and cynical cartel middleman (Brad Pitt), and Reiner, a spastic nightclub raconteur with extravagant tastes (Javier Bardem), spend the majority of the film’s first third giving the Counselor reasons for not following them down the path of known treachery. The Counselor, however, never wavers in his intent, brushing off their warnings with self-confident quips and a smug assuredness that he would be exempt from any possible tragic outcome.

Just like every other tragedy played out on the screen, stage, or page over the last several thousand years, the Counselor’s blind hubris gives way to devastating repercussions. In this case, the deal is sabotaged and that rusty old truck carrying the cocaine is intercepted by another party. After a series of shocking events and a singular banal coincidence, the cartel becomes convinced that the Counselor and his associates were somehow behind it all. Reiner and Westray, knowing the cartel will come after them as relentlessly as a pack of ghastly hellhounds, give him one last piece of advice: to run for his life and not to even dare to look back.

Unfortunately, neither Reiner, Westray, nor the Counselor run fast or far enough away, for they all eventually meet their respective fates at the unforgiving hands of ruthless drug lords. The last piece of advice that the Counselor receives in the film is from a kingpin played by Rubén Blades (For Greater Glory), whom the Counselor contacts in a desperate attempt to save himself and his fiancée from any harm. The Kingpin, from the comforts of his richly furnished office, can only counsel him toward a final resignation. "The world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made," he tells him. "You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago."

It is interesting to note that the tagline on the film’s posters and promotional materials states: “Sin is a choice.” Although the concept of sin has been largely regarded by our current culture as nothing but fabricated moral guidelines designed by ancient religious hierarchies to keep the minions in line, McCarthy - himself being a religious skeptic - explores in The Counselor the possibility of sin's existence and its consequences with grave concern.
 

The malevolent character of Malkina, played with sultry ineptitude by Cameron Diaz, finds herself fascinated with other people’s relationship to their own sins. In an early scene, she quizzes Laura, a cradle Catholic, on the experience of going to a priest for confession, especially in regards to sexual matters:

MALKINA: …Suppose you’ve done something really nasty. He doesn’t pump you for details?
LAURA: I don’t think so. You’re embarrassing me.
MALKINA: I can see. You’re blushing. Okay. We’ll change the subject.
LAURA: Good.
MALKINA: We’ll talk about my sex life.
LAURA: You’re teasing.
MALKINA: Just rattling your cage. What a world.
LAURA: You think the world is strange.
MALKINA: I meant yours.

In a later scene, Malkina cuts in on a confessional line at a church only to inform the priest that she is there to brag about her dastardly deeds and doesn’t want any absolution. The priest refuses to comply, stating that such a confession would be pointless. This scene is congruent with one of the primary themes of the movie, which is how we can deftly ignore counsel or refuse even the chance for it.

There are several different ways that counsel can be conferred – for example, from standpoints of professional expertise, personal knowledge, and past experience. Counsel can also be given as a charismatic gift, meaning the knowledge conveyed does not come from concretely within, but mysteriously from without or up from the awesome complexities of the subconscious. 

There is also a kind of counsel colloquially popular in this day in which is lazy in its passivity and wicked in its implications: “Keep it Real.” “Just Be You.” “Go with Your Gut” – which is to say, “Appeal to Your Appetites,” which is to say, “Do as Thou Wilt,” the devil’s one commandment.

Every one of these forms of counsel can be corrupted if what is being conveyed is meant to manipulate the advisee for purposes willed by the advisor. In Biblical tradition, Lucifer designated himself  - in an act of monumental pride - as a divine prosecutor (the Hebrew word for Satan directly translates to "accuser"), putting himself in a position to advise an omniscient God of the disreputability of His creation.

McCarthy’s last project, the devastating stage play The Sunset Limited (adapted into a stellar HBO production in 2011), also dealt with what it means and what it takes to offer consultation and direction. For anyone who has felt they had a call to offer counsel, the play may seem a terrifying fable: for how can you possibly offer guidance and healing to someone whose primary appetite is for annihilation?


So what was McCarthy trying to communicate to audiences with The Counselor? What advice was he was trying to pass along to us?

First, it is important to acknowledge McCarthy as a seasoned master of his craft. Although long-time readers have deemed The Counselor to be one of his “lesser works,” which it may very well be, many film critics have branded his script to be nothing but the nihilistic ramblings of a misanthropic old coot who really had no idea how to write a proper screenplay.

The dialogue in The Counselor is indeed verbose and complex - but the poetry and intelligence with which McCarthy writes should save it from dismissively designating it as stilted. When characters are speaking, they demand the strict attention and consideration of the viewer, offering us long, ponderous monologues that express their philosophies fully.

In an early scene, a Diamond Dealer (Bruno Ganz) describes to the Counselor the true meaning, as he sees it, of presenting a stone as impressive as a diamond to one’s fiancée. “To partake of the stone’s endless destiny, is that not the meaning of adornment?” He asks. “To enhance the beauty of the beloved is to acknowledge both her frailty and the nobility of that frailty. At our noblest, we announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.”

The last monologues of the movie are afforded to the characters that have the most power, and who have attained it by the most heartless and immoral means. They speak with a calm, serpentine authority, confident in their world view and detached from their deeds. The last scene of the movie features Malkina (a character who should have been played by an actress with classical training) meeting with a mysterious banker at an upscale restaurant. Eventually, she begins to reflect on how aspects of our humanity get in the way of her own course: 

"I suspect that we are ill-formed for the path we have chosen. Ill-formed and ill-prepared. We would like to draw a veil over all the blood and terror that have brought us to this place. It is our faintness of heart that would close our eyes to all of that, but in doing so makes of it our destiny… But nothing is crueler than a coward, and the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining."

Shortly thereafter, right before the credits begin to roll, Malkina utters the last line of the film:

"I’m famished."

In our overview of the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson, we had noted that the last line of There Will Be Blood (“I’m finished) inversely echoed another last line uttered by Jesus on the cross (“It is finished.”) While Daniel Plainview’s final statement reflected his own self-destruction, Malkina’s reflects an insatiability for that which she could never find herself satisfied by – the problem is though, the woman is a huntress, and it is her natural inclination to be forever on the prowl. One might even think of her as a personification of the principalities and powers warned of in the final lines of McCarthy’s twisted Twainian novel, Suttree:

"Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed and ravening for souls in this world. Fly them."

It seems as if McCarthy uses his stories as wrestling rings in which to grapple with tenets of the Catholic faith in which he was raised. Regardless of McCarthy's views on the God of Christianity, he consistently affirms the idea that man has been long engaged in a grave spiritual war. In his fiction, the notion of sin is something that is undeniably real, something each individual is personally responsible for. 

Another thematic exploration McCarthy frequently embarks on is the question of "The Kingdom of God." How could such a thing possibly emerge in a world so hopelessly fallen and self-concerned? God’s Kingdom, with all that it preaches, would seem far too fragile a flower to spring out of the rubble grounds of criminal and capitalistic greed, and His Word much too small a seed to be taken by the cold and brutal wasteland which is so many men’s hearts. 

Perhaps the thing which McCarthy finds most disturbing about this spiritual warfare is the proposed plan for victory on the Christian side. Following the example of Christ as a sacrificial lamb, the suggested remedy for dissolving the evil that is rampant in the world is to show up for the slaughter that they have prepared for us. The history of the Church attests to the fact that it was the blood of the martyrs which helped it to flourish. The question for today is what exactly are the destructive forces that are active in our society? Where did they come from? What are they trying to accomplish? What can we expect? How can we define them?

These are questions that have obviously haunted McCarthy in his writing. In the opening monologue to No Country for Old Men, the protagonist Sherriff Ed Tom Bell puts these sentiments into solemn expression:

"The crime you see now, it’s hard to take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out to meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘O.K., I’ll be a part of this world.’"

The greatest gift McCarthy has offered our culture is his vivid depictions of the forms of evil which we can expect to encounter in this world. We cannot look at what he presents to us and say that we don’t know what he’s talking about. Because we do. We recognize it in the news, in our society, in our schools, and in ourselves. 

Cormac McCarthy in writing The Counselor has continued to remind us that evil is real, that sin is a choice, and that demons are constantly prowling about seeking the ruin of souls. However, McCarthy has also a tendency to fixate on the “Good Friday” realities of our world and not enough on the “Easter Sunday” realities which go along with it (a critique which Martin Scorsese once received from a Catholic priest in regards to his work). If the things he speaks of are indeed true, than their opposites must be as well – that goodness is real, love is a choice, and legions of angels are available to us, attending to our needs. Still, such a single-minded exploration on the reality of sin, albeit a tough pill to swallow, is well worthwhile.

Recently, critic Leonard Maltin, as a guest on the popular comedy podcast "Doug Loves Movies," lamented to host Doug Benson that watching The Counselor was like "penance," and the comparison may not be an unfair one. What Mr. Maltin (as well Malkina in the movie) might be failing to realize, however, is just how necessary the action of penance truly is - especially in a world gone inexorably wrong. 

4 comments:

  1. Another excellent piece. I'll be seeking this one out.

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  2. We put our chips forward, or not.



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