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Cormac McCarthy's Disastrous Hollywood Debut

20th Century Fox

Making a film is so hard. Sometimes you wish it had been impossible. Somehow or other, assets in the region of $50 million have to be distributed, and even if you have big names on your project it may be hard to disguise the fact that they have nothing useful or interesting to do. You may have to go to hot, unpleasant places in the world—like El Paso and Juarez—which involve paying a little local “insurance.” So you’re creeping up on $60 million. For reasons that may never be explained, you have consented to let the novelist Cormac McCarthy do the screenplay, his first. McCarthy is a mighty novelist who has evolved a way in which his book characters say very little and speak out of brutal, movie-like necessity. But you might have surmised that McCarthy would lunge towards literary respectability in doing a movie and so churn out yards and miles of banal aphoristic chat about violence, danger and what men will do, and what women will do. You can imagine the actors sighing: We have to live in El Paso and say these endless lines? Plus, the making of such movies can have no respect for the thing called life. The director Ridley Scott had to interrupt shooting on The Counselor when his brother Tony jumped off a bridge near Los Angeles. They were close in many ways, brothers and partners, and there had to be mourning and remembrance. This is the most significant aspect of human truth I can conjure up in talking about this disastrous film.

The Counselor is a lawyer, a man in desperate need of advice but recklessly determined to ignore it. Don’t ask me why. He lives in El Paso, but on the high ground, in a designer mansion, waking at two in the afternoon and drifting into stilted sex talk with his lovely paramour, Penelope Cruz. It seems clear from this languid style that he is a very successful lawyer, and he is flying to Amsterdam as soon as he has dealt with Ms. Cruz “down there.” It matches his lack of name that he has the handsome, cold, sleekness of Michael Fassbender (which is becoming very monotonous, and too often serves as a mask to conceal script problems that have not been attended to). So somehow this paragon of advertising’s iconography wants more: He wants the booty from a big drug deal—perhaps he needs the risk (I told you he is desperate for advice).

Such raffish, worldly figures as Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt do provide the advice. It is discouraging and alarming. They hint at cruel darkness in the culture of the border that leaves one to believe any intelligent person would stay in bed with Penelope Cruz. Pitt even goes so far as to describe a hideous method of execution (you deserve the details, but I won’t spoil them) so that you know someone in the film is going to get it firsthand. Meanwhile, the sinister Malkina is in the offing. She seems to be Bardem’s mistress, but she is plainly lusting after more attention. At one point, without benefit of Catholic membership, she goes to confession for the chance to tell us how sinful she has been. The shocked priest scuttles out of the box—and we understand his protective instincts. Malkina wears tattoos and savage bias-cut dresses. She is Cameron Diaz, standing in for Angelina Jolie. She is bad and the film is based on the glowering paranoia that women are that way. But she does have two pet cheetahs.

20th Century Fox
Javier Bardem as Reiner and Cameron Diaz as Malkina.

I want to stress that because not only are they lovely, fast, and unable to mouth any McCarthy dialogue—cheetahs have had short shrift in movies lately, and it’s good to see them back, and to feel their contempt for human actors. I hope they were properly fed. There are two other compensations: Rosie Perez has a vivid scene as a woman in the jail, the mother of one of the Counselor’s clients. But the pièce de résistance in all this nonsense comes when the Counselor resolves to get a diamond ring for Cruz. The jeweler (he’s in Amsterdam) is Bruno Ganz, so for a few moments those ancient sad eyes can study the facets and the carats and utter runic wisdom on the nature of diamonds which he may have made up on the spur of the moment. In any movie project with instinct and hope, the powers that should have been would have recognized Ganz and known that the picture should begin and end with his character. Maybe he could do a Hitler impersonation somewhere along the way.

And behind all of this is Ridley Scott, a knight of his realm, in so many ways like a warlord from Northumbria in the Middle Ages, a seventy-five-year-old warrior of movie-making, and someone who has at least a dozen projects lined up for him as director or producer, including a “don’t-do-it-buddy” sequel to his own Prometheus (Fassbender as a robot—deft casting, but part of that actor’s cul de sac) and even a return to the idea of Alien.

Ridley Scott is a figure in our world. Just recently I had a chance to re-view his first film, Boy and Bicycle, 27 minutes, in black and white, in which a kid (Tony Scott) just bikes around Hartlepool. It was made for the British Film Institute Experimental Fund when Scott was nineteen. It’s not profound, but it’s full of hope and sheer delight at what the camera can see. This is the man who would go on to make The DuellistsAlien (the original), Blade RunnerThelma & Louise, White Squall, and Black Hawk Down. Those are my favorites; you may prefer GladiatorRobin Hood, or even American Gangster. My own estimate is that the panache of that last film was already running out of purpose; Sir Ridley Scott embarked on his old age in a profession for young men where the premium on action, adventure, men being men (and idiots), violence and mindlessness are just as capable of making a fool out of a veteran as they could undermine a kid.

The Counselor is a very bad film, and I suspect that a lot of the actors knew that already as they did their work. It lacks clarity, plausibility, suspense, and purpose. But it has two lovely cheetahs and the exquisite elegance of Bruno Ganz, Now, if only some real director had had the idea of letting Ganz simply talk to those aloof cats for a couple of hours. In black and white, on the shores of Hartlepool?

David Thomson is a fim critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames and Hudson).