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Breaking Badly

An instant classic—for all the wrong reasons.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Cormac McCarthy’s script for The Counselor offers a new twist on the immortal George Orwell crack that some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual would believe them. Only a truly gifted writer could have written something quite as awful as this jaw-dropping fiasco, simultaneously so overwrought and so undercooked that it qualifies as an immediate camp classic.

The Counselor is nominally a thriller about a self-satisfied El Paso lawyer (known only as “the counselor”) who gets involved in a get-rich-quick drug deal that immediately goes south. But even though heads literally roll—three get lopped off in the course of the movie—there’s almost no action. The major events mostly take place off-camera; what we do see is people talking. The opening is a love scene between the counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz), in which the 80-year-old McCarthy makes a fool of himself attempting to capture the sexual banter of two thirtysomethings:

SHE: I want you to touch me. .  .  . 

HE: You really do.

SHE: I really do.

HE: Say it more sexy. .  .  . How did you get to be such a bad girl?

This dialogue is Oscar Wilde-quality compared with the nonsense that comes later. The counselor goes to buy Laura an engagement ring. The diamond merchant tells him: 

It is not a small thing to wish for, however unattainable. To partake of the stone’s endless destiny. Is that not the meaning of adornment? To enhance the beauty of the beloved is to acknowledge both her frailty and the nobility of that frailty. At our noblest we announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives. That we will not thereby be made less.

I’m not kidding.

Later, the counselor discusses his involvement in the drug scheme with his friend, a fixer named Westray (Brad Pitt, in the movie’s only good performance). Though he sports a ponytail and Fat-Elvis sunglasses, Westray is a Heideggerian: “Time is not going to stop, Counselor. It’s forever. And everything that exists will one day vanish. Forever. And it will take with it every explanation of it that was ever contrived.”

He’s nothing next to the head of the Mexican drug cartel, played by the musician/politician Rubén Blades, whom the counselor later calls in desperation after his girlfriend is kidnapped. When this fellow is not making snuff films, it appears he is reading Schopenhauer.

“I have no wish to paint the world in colors more somber than those it wears,” says this nonnative English speaker, “but as the world gives way to darkness it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing which you have created, no more, no less. And when you cease to be, so will the world. .  .  . The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass.”

When the counselor needs to find a safe place for him and Laura to meet in secret, their conversation follows thus:

SHE: How about Boise?

HE: Boise?

SHE: Boise.

HE: Why Boise?

SHE: What’s wrong with Boise?

HE: Have you ever been to Boise?

SHE: No.

No, this is not a skit. 

At its core, The Counselor is an astonishingly simple ethical pageant. The counselor, for reasons that are never made clear, decides to cross the line into criminality. Everybody advises him not to do so. He does it. And he gets punished.

McCarthy’s novels teem with the lurid imaginings of an Old Testament moralist living in a truly fallen world, dominated not by good but by evil. The fable-like nature of his narratives always places them at a slight remove from reality; when his characters talk to each other in an exaggeratedly formal and overly philosophical manner, the reader can make allowances. But in a grubby thriller set in a Texas border town with a diabolical villain played by a slinky Cameron Diaz, it’s risible.

What McCarthy doesn’t understand is that screenplays aren’t really pieces of writing; they’re more like stage directions for moving pictures, with dialogue to move the story along and make you care about the characters you’re watching. “Screenplays are structure,” according to the peerless student-practitioner of the form, William Goldman. The Counselor has a structure; the problem is that it’s a bad structure, one in which we don’t see the action that makes a movie interesting. Instead, we’re held captive while a didactic existentialist fills the mouths of his characters with portentous twaddle. 

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