Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity.
- Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
The 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is a tense, tight film with one overarching theme: evil is coming for you, and there's nothing you can do about it. Many commentators see that book and film, along with most of McCarthy's work (including, now, The Counselor, his first original screenplay), as part of a sort of declinist narrative of history: too much has happened for us to ever go back. This world in which we live is irreparably dark.
Certainly, the Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning novelist is convinced that we are at the mercy of history more than we—especially we Americans—will ever consider fair. Yet No Country's Ellis, uncle to Tommy Lee Jones's sheriff and an ex-law man himself, points out to his nephew that the evil encountered in the terrifying figure of Anton Chigurh, the bolt pistol-toting hitman, ain't nothin new.
It's vanity, in McCarthy's view, to think that we've got a new breed of evil today. It's the same old evil, only now it has bigger guns. And it still strikes at random.
This is what The Counselor is about.
The story in a McCarthy tale is secondary to what the story is driving at, which is always the same two points. One, the world is older than it ever has been, and might be ending at any time; two, in the meantime, it's often a very bad place to live, full of random, senseless evil. There is no victory in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The best anyone can hope for is to survive the apocalypse, or hope his son will survive.
McCarthy is not a religious man in the traditional sense of the word, but he was raised Catholic, and religion crops up in this film frequently as a topic of discussion. (I've read his worldview described as "Catholic without the revelation.") Key to McCarthy's moral universe is this sense of evil as a transcendent thing, which is to say that it exists apart from individual people and their actions: the wages of sin is death, but death and destruction come to the (relatively) innocent, too.
McCarthy frequently links a different worldview—the idea that it is possible, here on earth, for good men to conquer evil—to a modern American way of thinking, obsessed with righting history's wrongs, convinced that past sins need not determine the future. For McCarthy, this is exactly the opposite of a more ancient perception of evil (for him, symbolized in Mexico) as a thing bigger than individual men, with a will of its own. It can be battled and pushed back, but not destroyed, not by us, not here.
Evil in McCarthy's universe is best distilled in the figure of No Country's Anton Chigurh, who is not a man at all, not in any real sense, in the same way that The Dark Knight's Joker is far more than a villain. In a passage from the novel All the Pretty Horses, a wealthy and influential prisoner in a Mexican jail explains it to John Grady Cole (our American cowboy hero, who has accidentally landed himself in that jail):
Americans have ideas that are not so practical. They think that there are good things and bad things. They are very superstitious, you know . . . It is the superstition of a godless people . . . There can be in a man some evil. But we dont [sic] think it is his own evil. Where did he get it? How did he come to claim it? No. Evil is a true thing in Mexico. It goes about on its own legs. Maybe some day it will come to visit you. Maybe it already has.
In The Counselor, evil comes sauntering into the life of the leading man, known only as "Counselor" (Michael Fassbender), who's recently engaged to and madly in love with Laura (Penelope Cruz, who, in a bit of odd McCarthy film trivia, played John Grady's love interest Alejandra in All the Pretty Horses). Looking to make some money, he engages in a one-time drug trafficking deal with the help of crazy-haired playboy Reiner (Javier Bardem, far more genial than he was in No Country).
Reiner's involved with and possibly in love with Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who is a chops-licking cheetah of a woman—she has actual pet cheetahs and a cheetah-print tattoo, and that's just where the resemblances start. She also flat-out terrifies Reiner and everyone else.
The deal is meant to be a one-time thing, after which the Counselor plans to settle down with Laura and continue being a lawyer. Of course, it's never that easy, especially not when you're getting involved with the cartel in Juarez, and he's in way over his head before he knows it. Westray (a magnificent Brad Pitt), a former friend and colleague of Reiner, tries to warn him about what's coming. The Counselor, he warns, has no idea what the people he's involved with are capable of. The Counselor isn't listening.
Those who know McCarthy will not exactly enjoy the film, but at least appreciate it for what it is: haunting. Things happen without clear reason. It's riveting not because you want to know what will happen next, but because you have no idea what will happen next.
But The Counselor is not excellent, and feels uneven in places. Reading Cormac McCarthy's prose is a challenge, not only because his themes are mature and complex, but because the prose itself is highly stylized. (For starters, he doesn't punctuate his dialogue, and he isn't very fond of commas, either.) The structure of his sentences is as important as their content.
That means that filmmakers with distinctive styles (the Coens, or John Hillcoat, who made The Road) are a good fit; though they put their own spin on the story, their films also feel formally distinctive, which mirrors the formal distinction of McCarthy's prose. The universe of the movie is like ours, but is firmly not ours, and so we can suspend our disbelief and let the technical quirks sing, rather than distract.
This is especially vital because McCarthy's characters frequently travel around telling stories and delivering aphoristic monologues on the state of the universe. (His novel The Crossing, which follows All the Pretty Horses in the "border trilogy," is full of men standing around campfires telling stories with huge cosmic implications.) This works on the page because the prose has already unsettled the reader's expectations, but if you're going to make a movie in which characters, played by real people, do the same, you've got to sell it by going all in.
However, Ridley Scott—though obviously one of the most important directors of the past few decades—isn't on that wavelength. Anyone who goes to see this film because they heard it was by the director of Gladiator and Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down and all the rest is going to be at least puzzled. Most people can follow the plot of a Scott film with relative ease. But The Counselor has McCarthy's signature monologues and oblique narrative structure. When the mismatch works, it is largely because of its cast, but when it doesn't, it's distracting (particularly in the final scene, where Diaz almost kills the film with her inability to say things like "the hunter has a purity of heart that exists nowhere else" convincingly).
The mismatch is perhaps most clear when McCarthy's screenplay is held against Scott's film—something I suppose it's okay to do, since the official shooting script for The Counselor was published a few weeks ago. Reading it is revealing. In Marginalia this week, Andrew Lanham wrote about the screenplay's place in McCarthy's ouevre and conjectured that it represented a new development for the author: a hint of hope, particularly in Malkina's case, even if it is hope that drives toward destruction. But that hint of hope is nowhere to be found in the film, nor a number of the original monologues, apparently removed to get the story to track better with viewers.
It's a shame, because there is still something very important at the heart of this film, and at the heart of all of McCarthy's work. This world is broken, broken beyond repair. Christians believe that after history's tragedies end, hope will be fulfilled—but our too-common mistake is to skip over the tragedy as fast as possible in our eagerness to get to the "redemption" part. (Gregory Wolfe writes of this beautifully in his Image editorial "The Tragic Sense of Life.") Anyone who has experienced genuine, senseless tragedy is familiar with the glib statements people make to smooth things over and keep on living.
But we need to experience grief, and we ought to grieve. We should to look around and spend time with the brokenness, feeling the difficulty of human embodiedness, allowing the sadness to take its time with us. This is not how things ought to be. Even Jesus wept, moments before raising Lazarus from the dead.
McCarthy's world holds little hope for redemption at all, but what he gets exactly right is that our existence seems senselessly tragic, and we're right to chafe. Near the film's end, we watch the Counselor gradually realize the full extent of the loss that evil is inflicting on him, and for a moment, we believe it's because of his wrongdoing. Certainly, the penalty outweighs the crime—the brutality is not excusable—but he still did a bad thing. He deserves to pay.
But then The Counselor becomes a McCarthy story, not a simple morality tale: he walks out into the street and right into the middle of a vigil that a number of the city's weeping residents are holding in memory of their own lost loved ones. He wanders through their midst with a look of wonder. It's Ellis's point in No Country: Whatcha got ain't nothin new. The Counselor is paying for his sins, but plenty of people lose their loved ones brutally without having engaged in illegal drug trafficking. Correlation does not imply causation. Evil is in us, but also bigger than us.
So that is why we need Cormac McCarthy alongside Victor Hugo and Shakespeare and Dickens: he reminds us (with a particularly American sensibility) that this world is broken and tragic and not fair, and that pushing past that fact too fast is an error we can't afford to make, for the good of our souls. Even if you believe in a final restoration, you need to feel why it's necessary.
Blessed, after all, are those who mourn.
The film is rated R for "graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language," which should surprise exactly nobody—but it's rough, even for McCarthy, and it would be difficult to recommend that most people see the movie, perhaps predominately because of a disturbing discussion of brutal snuff films. People (more than one) are beheaded. Blood sprays everywhere. There's a well-choreographed and fairly brutal gunfight, and other occasions in which people are shot. Bodies are disposed of in various ways, including in a barrel. There's some very frank discussions of sex, including one long and weird story that will probably go down in movie history partially for its particular metaphor for female genitalia. Two characters are in bed together at the start of the film; though there's no nudity, there is a clear discussion and then depiction of oral sex. Two women have a conversation while draped scantily with towels. One character goes to confession and talks graphically to a priest. The plot hinges on a massive drug trade. And everything you think of when a movie is rated R for language happens.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. You can follow her at @alissamarie.