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Cormac Relief

Why are two new movies from one of our greatest novelists so laughably bad?

By December 2013Comments

Illustration by Michael Koelsch

Movies don’t come much more anticipated than The Counselor,a twisty tale of drug dealing and backstabbing along the Texas border written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Michael Fassbender. Yet what on paper sounded like a sure thing turned out to be this fall’s most crushing disappointment. The film, which opened in late October, is less a taut thriller than a series of exasperatingly talky scenes circling around McCarthy’s pet themes: honor, revenge, sexual obsession, and the lengths to which desperate people will go to survive. The contrived plot seems mostly an excuse for the acclaimed novelist to indulge his love of torture, beheadings, and sadistic weaponry (including something he calls the “bolito”—a motor-operated loop of wire that slices through the carotid arteries). The dialogue, meanwhile, is plain laughable, with drug dealers pausing to deliver cryptic philosophical musings on such subjects as “the extinction of all reality.” Not exactly what anyone was hoping for from the writer whose No Country for Old Men provided the basis for the Coen brothers’ 2007 Oscar-winning movie.

In any other season, it might be easy to dismiss The Counselor as a minor doodle from the eighty-year-old novelist, who lived in El Paso for a couple of decades and who has returned to that area repeatedly in his fiction. But the film arrived around the same time as a second McCarthy project, Child of God, faithfully adapted from his 1973 novel about Lester Ballard, a Tennessee drifter driven to murder and madness after his ancestral home is auctioned. Co-written and directed by James Franco, this grim, occasionally arresting movie—which played at a number of festivals in the fall and is expected to be released next year—is certainly better than The Counselor.Yet it too devolves into garish violence and unintentional hillbilly kitsch—just try keeping a straight face as Lester (played by relative newcomer Scott Haze) steals chickens, masturbates in public, and finally burrows into a corpse-littered cave in order to escape an angry lynch mob.

Taken together, these two movies have the vexing effect of raising some doubts about McCarthy’s reputation. He’s won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and is regularly talked up as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. His influence on popular culture has been especially pronounced in the past decade: consider the backwoods-noir novels of the late William Gay (Twilight), Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone), and Donald Ray Pollock (The Devil All the Time) or such brooding, western-flavored films as Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005). (Hillcoat later directed the 2009 film version of McCarthy’s The Road.) But The Counselor and Child of God are so pretentious and puerile—often in the same scene—that theyprompt one to wonder if McCarthy is, at heart, a pulp fantasist who occasionally transcends the genre’s limitations. 

No Country for Old Men, of course, is the reason many people believe otherwise and are convinced that McCarthy’s stark vision of good-versus-evil is perfectly suited for big-screen treatment. But No Country for Old Men is McCarthy’s most straightforward, tightly constructed story (he originally wrote it as a screenplay in the eighties before turning it into a novel), and the Coen brothers made the cat-and-mouse chase sequences far more elaborate and exciting on film than they were in the novel. (It’s also worth noting that the weakest aspect of the movie—Tommy Lee Jones’s gasbaggy voiceovers—came straight from McCarthy’s typewriter.) More often, McCarthy’s evocative, episodic narratives turn unruly on-screen (see Billy Bob Thornton’s 2000 adaptation of All the Pretty Horses) or are rendered as something flat and commonplace (see The Road, which clumsily transformed McCarthy’s soul-stirring survival story into a dreary horror flick). 

In the case of The Counselor, the very things literary critics have praised him for—his sparing use of exposition, his unsentimental depictions of human depravity—start to look like affectations. The story centers on an El Paso attorney (Fassbender) who partners with two high-end drug dealers (Bardem and Pitt) to pull off a $20 million score. But the screenplay refuses to connect any dots or explain the most basic connections between the protagonists (Fassbender’s character is never referred to by name, only as “the Counselor”). And whereas this might work in a novel, possibly by the sheer force of McCarthy’s prose, in a screenplay it’s exasperating. You watch the movie and ask yourself, “Is this writer striving for mythic resonance? Or is he just failing to attain basic coherence?” 

Of course, the entertainment industry has long diminished the complicated visions of great writers; just ask Philip Roth, whose batting average with the film adaptations of Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy’s Complaint; and The Human Stain is worse than McCarthy’s. But The Counselor and Child of God reflect badly even on the McCarthy books that haven’t been turned into movies. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a scene more undignified than the one in The Counselor in which Diaz, as Bardem’s devious girlfriend, strips off her underwear and writhes against a car’s windshield to the point of climax. Until, that is, you see the sequence in Child of God where the increasingly deranged Lester stumbles upon a dead woman—and then proceeds to buy her a red dress and lipstick and make sweet love to her corpse. Franco, admirably, shoots all of this with a matter-of-fact detachment that almost prevents it from coming off as ridiculous. But after watching these movies, it’s impossible not to question McCarthy’s portrait of women as either conniving sluts or (literally) lifeless sexual playthings (not to mention poor Cruz, in the almost comically underwritten damsel-in-distress role of Fassbender’s fiancée). You may find yourself—as I did—trying to recall any multidimensional female characters at the center of a McCarthy novel and coming up blank. 

It’s hard to begrudge McCarthy—who toiled in near obscurity for two-plus decades until the breakout success of All the Pretty Horses—the fat paycheck and increased book sales that come from working with Hollywood. It seems churlish, too, to slam ambitious filmmakers like Scott and Franco for trying to translate so singular a literary voice to the screen. But it might be time for everyone involved to recognize that these McCarthy-based movies are rarely going to succeed. No matter how skilled the actors are, clipped and elusive dialogue like the kind you hear in The Counselor is never going to sound like anything that might come out of a real person’s mouth. (Bardem to Diaz, after she’s admitted that she’s not the sort of person who misses the people she’s left behind: “You don’t think that’s a bit cold?” Diaz to Bardem: “I think truth has no temperature.”) No matter how artful the direction, there’s no way to capture the unwieldy rhythms and strange beauty of written passages like the one that opens Child of God: “They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun.” (Franco’s dubious solution is to periodically put words from the novel directly onto the screen.) 

I’m still pretty sure that McCarthy is a great novelist—it’s hard to cite another writer who can shift so fluidly from brutality to majesty and from mythmaking to hardscrabble reality. But I also wonder how many more high-profile dings his reputation can take before he becomes better remembered for the cartoonish extremes of his work than for the haunting subtleties. Here’s hoping the adaptation of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that Hollywood has been threatening for years—rumored, at different times, to be directed by Scott or Franco—remains trapped in development hell.

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