When I reviewed No Country for Old Men, I came to the conclusion that the Coen brothers intended Sheriff Bell as the protagonist of their film. I found this choice to be in defiance of what the story they told required. In other words, I thought the material demanded the protagonist of No Country be, Anton Chigurh.
I based this on the line about “if your rule brought you to this, of what use to you was that rule.” Add to that the following exchange, in which Chigurh explains to Carla Jean why the logic of his rule demands he kill her:
…I gave my word.
You gave your word?
To your husband.
You might go as far as calling Chigurh a naïve Kantian. His imperative is to destroy everything that opposes him. He is smart enough to realize that this involves a Kantian contradiction. You CAN ONLY will a world in which you destroy all who oppose you if you are the most zealously devoted person to your maxim in your world. This world functions for you ONLY if you get rid of all who oppose you. [Because, necessarily, the maxim of all who oppose you is to rid the world of you.]
Linearly speaking, No Country ends with Bell speaking with Ellis about Bell’s withdrawal from [what he sees as] a world that is rapidly evolving to meet Anton Chigurh MUCH MORE than half way. This is symbolized by his retirement from law enforcement AND his ride into the metaphorical sunset of his dreams. The truth is, though, No Country actually ends when Chigurh fulfills his promise to Moss by killing Carla Jean.
Metaphorically speaking, the end of No Country for Old Men is where The Counselor begins. (1)
1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)
Part A) The dialogue is not free of exposition. In fact we primarily learn the plot of this story through its dialogue. In that sense, and if you are not already at an advanced level of craftsmanship, please do not try and emulate the dialogue in The Counselor. Mr. McCarthy is able to fill lines with exposition because he has the talent to make something which would be endlessly boring in less skilled hands, fill with tension in his more skilled hands. [I can’t deny how much that feels like an excuse, even to me].
The setup for The Counselor’s involvement in the drug deal [which will ultimately leave many people without their heads] comes in an 8 page scene [17-25] at Reiner’s Penthouse in which the drug deal itself is barely mentioned.
Go back and read it.
Three pages or so of discussion about how Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus until we get this, less than half a page, of relevant exposition:
REINER Yeah. You pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon and you
will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you
completely by surprise. You won’t see it coming at all.
COUNSELOR Such as?
REINER Such as whether to waste somebody or not. Or have them wasted.
COUNSELOR You ever been faced with a decision like that?
REINER You’re a member of the court.
COUNSELOR Well. I don’t intend to take this up as a trade.
REINER One time deal. Right?
COUNSELOR Which you’ve heard a thousand times.
This exchange is immediately followed up by three pages of talk about a “bolito” until we get this:
COUNSELOR So when are you getting out?
REINER Don’t know.
COUNSELOR There’s no such thing as enough.
The-Counselor-Javier-Bardem1REINER Don’t know. One can hope.
COUNSELOR Yeah. Well, I suspect you’re right about one thing.
REINER What’s that?
COUNSELOR That you never see it coming.
REINER That’s been my experience. What’s the Miller quote? The smallest
crumb can devour us? (2)
So, yes this script both is, and is not, filled with endless exposition. The point about exposition is that it makes a script hard to read. If this script is hard to read [and I believe it is], it is not because of its exposition. So:
7 out of 10 points.
Part B) I think there is impressive subtext at work in this story. I feel, however, that statement cannot stand without at least one provision.
I am not a McCarthy scholar, (3) but the general zeitgeist which surrounds his recent work makes me think that he is in a highly metaphorical phase of his career. Maybe this phase will pass, maybe he has always written this way, or maybe this will be what he becomes known for. [The Road?] My point with this observation is that I don’t think “The Counselor” is really supposed to be an individual. He is much more an aggregate than a unique character. He is America, or, possibly, The Idea of Colonialism, there is even an outside chance that he is meant to stand for all of Western Civilization. The one thing he is not supposed to be is… a counselor. It is a tricky thing to make a symbol say something with subtext NOT related to the idea the symbol symbolizes.
So, The Counselor is arrogant and shallow and handsome and inattentive, like America itself… or like a lawyer in a Mexican Border Town? If The Counselor isn’t meant to be a real man, how deep can he be?
I will, however, give a single example I thought was quite good. From page 101:
CAFÉ MAN Es muy peligroso. En las calles.
COUNSELOR I know.
CAFÉ MAN They hear somebody in the street they shoot them. Then they turn
on the light to see who is dead.
COUNSELOR Why do they do that?
CAFÉ MAN (Shrugging) To make a joke. To show that death does not care.
That death has no meaning.
COUNSELOR Qué piensa? Usted. Do you believe that?
CAFÉ MAN No. Of course not. All my family is dead. I am the one who has no
CAFÉ MAN Cuidado. Si?
COUNSELOR Sí. Cuidando.
CAFÉ MAN Quién es? La Señora.
COUNSELOR (Turning at the door.) Mi esposa.
CAFÉ MAN Ah. Guapa.
The counselor stands at the door.
COUNSELOR Sí. Guapa. What is that?
CAFÉ MAN It means she is beautiful.
COUNSELOR No. I mean what does that mean? What is it? Beautiful.
CAFÉ MAN I don’t know. It is late.
COUNSELOR Yes. Good night.
CAFÉ MAN Good night, Amigo. Good night.
I really love this exchange even though it also [probably] goes too far. It is too literary, too metaphorical. It captures The Counselor’s sadness, but in a dressy way. Still, I love that the counselor is being this American, this Western—even in his very last scene in the film. He has turned Laura from a woman into a device. An aesthetic.
Q. What is beautiful?
A. It is late.
Q. Why did I lose her?
A. Because you were vain.
But we are solidly in the [real]m of Symbol. [Interestingly, vanity was the reason given for the loss at the end of No Country. (4)]
7 out of 10 points.
Part C) Character individuation? This one is tough. I feel like the characters are interesting when they are speaking, but I’m not sure they’re properly individuated.
To me, the conversation I referenced earlier between The Counselor and Reiner seems like it happens over and over again. The voice behind Reiner sounds like the voice of Westray, and even the voice of Malkina, and Jefe. The teacher/student dynamic that alkalizes with Reiner continues with the other characters and, even though there are cultural and gender inflections which make the characters recognizable, I believe that the intelligence and gravitas that informs the majority of what is said in each of these conversations belongs to a single person—Cormac McCarthy.
5 out of 10 points.
2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)
The script begins with a six page scene of lurid sex talk between The Counselor and his soon-to-be-wife Laura. As far as sex talk goes this is lurid but also kind of boring. It ends up being a VERY interesting bookend with the things Malkina says at the end of the script [and we will talk more about just how interesting when we get to theme] but it did not get my attention, if I’m being honest.
Then we have a couple of pages of skipping, between The Counselor in Amsterdam, the underbelly of a septic truck in a Mexican garage, and the aforementioned Malkina looking sultry while strutting across a high desert grassland. (4) This was a little more interesting than the sex talk.
After these pages we settle down to just watching The Counselor as he picks out an engagement ring for Laura from an adamantly philosophical diamond dealer in Amsterdam. This part I liked. In retrospect, however, I think that the DEALER character is the first appearance the voice of Cormac makes in his script. At any rate, the conversation in the diamond shop definitely begins the teacher/student dynamic.
Taken together these first ten pages hit me as only slightly better than average:
11 out of 20 points.
3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (each part worth 10 points)
Part A) Well, as was the case with No Country, this script is VERY short on reveals. Borrowing ideas from the type of analysis I recommend in my screenwriting essay, I find the pinch point of The Counselor to come on page 63 when we get this:
The counselor is listening to Westray on the telephone, sitting in his chair in his condo.
COUNSELOR Que pasó?
WESTRAY We’ve got a problem.
WESTRAY You there?
COUNSELOR I’m here. How bad a problem?
WESTRAY Let’s say pretty bad. Then multiply by ten.
In my notes at this point I wrote: “And where was this setup ANYWHERE in the first 62 pages.”
Don’t get me wrong, I followed the story. A guy on a motorcycle, who was supposed to drive the septic truck and was also the son of RUTH [a woman on death row whom The Counselor happens to be representing] got his head cut off and therefore lost the keys to the truck which were taped to the top of his helmet. The coincidence about The Counselor being involved in the drug deal and also representing the mother of the motorcycle guy who was supposed to drive the septic truck IS the source of The Counselor’s rather pedestrian… “Fuck”. I got all that. It’s just that there was zero sense in which this was revealed.
4 out of 10 points.
Part B) If The Counselor is America, then the engine that drives this story is: America wants to have its cake and eat it too. Everything that happens in this story supports that engine.
10 out of 10 points.
Part C) Since I began the review I have been waiting to get to this part of this question.
Although I did not like this script, I cannot deny that I appreciate Mr. McCarthy’s talent. The thematic statement made by The Counselor is complete and perfect [according to its own terms].
I mentioned earlier that I found it to be significant that the script begins and ends with sex talk. This is unquestionably meant to hit us over the head with Mr. McCarthy’s theme [in case we missed it].
Humans are irredeemable animals.
Actually, I think McCarthy implies two themes. The first is Human-Universal and is summarized by the just stated:
Humans are irredeemable animals.
Because he is smart and capable of humbling me with his talent, Mr. McCarthy also manages to make this theme have a Human-Specific implication as well:
America chooses not to see ITS evil in the world.
You tell me. But here’s what is true. If whole nations are capable
of love and hate and greed and envy—which they are—then it’s
just more than possible that murder itself can become a collective
enterprise. Murder as a national pastime. You’re smiling. I think
there’s probably only one thing reserved exclusively to the
COUNSELOR And that would be?
WESTRAY Forgiveness. People as a group can love or hate or admire or
malign. But there’s no such thing as collective forgiveness.
So you see, there is a reason why The Counselor is not a single person. He is not meant to be. He was supposed to be a collective symbol all along. Authors do not often parse their arithmetic this perfectly, but I was genuinely humbled by the experience. Seeing Mr. McCarthy’s talent reminded me of THE reason why I read. It’s not for the story or the display; it’s always for the talent.
10 out of 10 points.
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) I did not like this script. I found it to be psychotically dark and violent. It borders on being violent for the sake of violence. A horrible, terrible thing to look at. I realize this was Mr. McCarthy’s point, but…:
2 out of 5 points.
And I will have more to say about Mr. McCarthy’s point in a minute.
Part B) From a screenwriting perspective the writing is embarrassing. From a literary standpoint, it is impressive. The complete disregard for the format has to cost him something though.
3 out of 5 points.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. To borrow from As Good As It Gets: Did the movie make us want to be a better person? (10 points)
Of course not. But…
If a story wants to be consistent with its theme [that humans are irredeemable animals] then one way to illustrate this will be to show several scenes of catastrophic violence. This will be consistent, and thematic consistency is one of the requirements of Art.
The problem is that I feel The Counselor is self-refuting. If Humans are irredeemable then:
Fuck you Mr. McCarthy.
I’ll grade him on the possible refutation rather than the consistency:
3 out of 10 points.
Total Score: 62
That score is a burden to me as a critic. It is a fact that this story is thematically superior to other hyper-violent scripts which have fared better against my scale. In other words, I may have been harder on Cormac then I have been on Quentin, the Coens, or Mr. McDonagh.
It’s just that violence is not a toy. It ought not to be played with like it is. Thematic consistencies be damned. In judging canvases I am determined to maintain that subject matter counts as much as the skill in the brushstrokes.
1. It is possible there is even more of a “border trilogy” truth to this statement than I am aware of.
2. At what point in having talent does it ever become okay to quote yourself?
3. I am definitely not a McCarthy scholar. The only book of his I’ve read is All the Pretty Horses. That is an excellent book. Far superior to the Billy Bob Thornton film that does not do it justice at all.
4. The coincidence here is enough to make me say The Counselor is a tale told by… Anton Chigurh.
5. She is introduced to us with her pet cheetahs. I never really made up my mind about these cheetahs, sometimes I thought they were cool, sometimes I thought that they were over the top. I still find myself undecided… with regard to the cheetahs.