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'The Counselor': Cormac McCarthy's script stumbles, critics say

October 25, 2013|By Oliver Gettell
  • Michael Fassbender stars as an attorney who plots to smuggle drugs in "The Counselor."
Michael Fassbender stars as an attorney who plots to smuggle drugs in "The… (Kerry Brown / 20th Century…)

As his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award attest, Cormac McCarthy has had plenty of success on the page, and several of his novels have also been adapted to the screen with good results, most notably "No Country for Old Men," which won four Academy Awards. But McCarthy's screenwriting debut, the new crime thriller "The Counselor," seems to be another matter.

According to film critics, McCarthy's original screenplay is by turns stilted, gruesome and alienating, and neither director Ridley Scott nor his all-star cast — including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt — can salvage it.

The Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "As cold, precise and soulless as the diamonds that figure briefly in its plot, 'The Counselor' is an extremely unpleasant piece of business." Though the film is "ably directed" and the cast is impressive, "everyone here is the prisoner of 'The Counselor's' clumsy puppet master, screenwriter Cormac McCarthy … who's apparently been eager to write directly for the screen for some time but should have stifled the impulse."

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McCarthy's script, about a lawyer (Fassbender) who gets mixed up in drug trafficking, is "terminally bleak," "entranced with its pseudo-mythic qualities" and "so predetermined there is little point in seeing it through to the end." Compounding the problem, "McCarthy's famously enigmatic dialogue turns out to work better on the page than on the screen."

Variety's Peter Debruge similarly says, "Whatever his strengths in print, McCarthy clearly doesn't understand how drama and suspense work onscreen, pouring most of his efforts into crafting impenetrably baroque conversations between loosely sketched stereotypes, wrongheadedly convinced that confusion and a growing sense of dread are sufficient to keep us riveted."

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday calls the film "a sewage-soaked demimonde that is as confusing as it is spiritually compromised." She adds, "Isn't McCarthy — author of 'No Country for Old Men' and 'The Road' — supposed to be the master of macho toughness and spare stylistic control? You wouldn’t know it from this self-consciously nasty piece of borderland noir, in which his familiar tropes by now look hackneyed and pathetic."

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Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune declares the film "dull" in spite of all its firepower. "McCarthy's story zigs and zags, but in slow motion. The character relationships lack the spark and juice of enjoyable trash. McCarthy's dialogue suffers from an excess of capital-W Writing that doesn't sound like speakable human expression, even flamboyant, proudly artificial human expression."

The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern says McCarthy's screenwriting debut is "infelicitous, to say the least. In a film that dwells on decapitation and a ghastly gizmo that cuts carotid arteries before progressing to strangulation, the cast is all but suffocated by the sententious dialogue of an airless drama." Ultimately, "What's missing is dramatic subtext and surprise, as well as any playfulness that might have kept us guessing about the plot."

Among the dissenting voices is the New York Times' Manohla Dargis, who writes, "From all the ellipses, as well as the eccentric, mesmerizing poetry of his dialogue, Mr. McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life. (That's a compliment; this is his first produced film script.)" Scott, for his part, "manages all these swiftly spinning parts with impeccable control and a lucid visual style."

She adds, "Mr. Scott's seriousness isn't always well served by the scripts he films, but in Mr. McCarthy he has found a partner with convictions about good and evil rather than canned formula."

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