‘Something of a halfway house’ – The Counsellor by Cormac McCarthy

tccmThe Counsellor, an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy and the first book to bear his name since The Road, is something of a halfway house in the sense that this is a piece of work that is not quite a novel and not quite a film. As such, it occupies a curious position. For fans of Cormac McCarthy, The Counsellor is a new puzzle, an intrigue, a question. As long ago as 2009, The Guardian referred to a body of as yet unseen work that formed part of the archive McCarthy donated to a Texas university, including three novels, including an unfinished novel called The Passenger and an as yet unproduced screenplay called Whales and Men. If we stick a pin in the idea of The Passenger for a moment, No Country for Old Men started as a screenplay and was later transformed into a novel. My own thinking is that The Passenger has undergone the journey in reverse and become The Counsellor.

The screenplay occupies a not dissimilar space to No Country for Old Men, albeit with a glossy sheen of money and the advantages that money brings. Opening with the Counsellor himself (to be played by Michael Fassbender in the film – and a knowledge of some aspects of the film will help in the reading of a screenplay) in bed with his lover, Laura (Penelope Cruz), engaging in some dirty talk, the action quickly shifts to a Mexican garage in which a Ford F-650 septic tank truck (McCarthy always keen on his detail) is cut apart to insert a fifty-five gallon drum into the body of the tank. Ah, the intuitive reader thinks – a device has been created by which something can be transported unbeknownst to authorities. We are also introduced to two further characters, Reiner (to be played by No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who are to be found in a white Cadillac Escalade in high desert grassland ‘similar to the country around Patagonia Arizona or east of Las Vegas New Mexico’ (note the vagueness – this vagueness is also felt elsewhere – place is remote in The Counsellor), watching a pair of cheetahs, who we later learn belong to Malkina, hunt. Know from the outset that Malkina, sultry, exotic mysterious, is the filthy beating heart of The Counsellor.

Each of these couples becomes entwined, the Counsellor and Reiner in a deal that promises to significantly alter the Counsellor’s fortunes, Laura and Malkina, seemingly innocently, as ladies who lunch. There are other characters – a young biker whose mother the Counsellor represents, a learned go-between called Westray (played by Brad Pitt) – who quotes (in the first meeting we see between him and the Counsellor) from Arthur Miller, ‘the smallest crumb can devour us’ – a wire-man, a blonde, a diamond dealer, all of whom also have parts to play and wisdom, of sorts to impart. In this monied world, all dirty dealings are kept at one remove, communication is important. So, there is a deal, which we are not clued up to the details of but which we come to learn involves a shipment of drugs, a shipment that, of course, goes astray. A distant cabal, who we never glimpse, order revenges to be enacted and several people die in bloody fashion. There are shootouts, beheadings, corpses abandoned on the highway. We come to learn, perhaps as the Counsellor himself learns, of the depth of his feelings for Laura. The action switches from the American desert to Amsterdam to Juarez in Mexico. There are private dining clubs, penthouses and condominiums; but there are also warehouses and the aforementioned garages, ‘small and bare’ conference rooms in state penitentiaries, bars and borders, junkyard subterfuge occurring in the dark, under cover, out of sight.

There are some terrific scenes and exquisite dialogue, McCarthy taking Chekov’s advice and planting not one but two loaded guns (one involving a wire and the other involving a DVD) relatively early in proceedings that, again, any careful reader will know to expect at some point in proceedings. There are ruminations on death and sex (the interplay between the Counsellor and Reiner tends to be dominated by what each thinks of their respective women, the interplay between the Counsellor and Westray, who could steal the film if Pitt is on form, much more freeform, much more beguiling). Some of the dialogue is obscure – in the way that some of, say, Don Delillo’s dialogue can be obscure – and, of course, some of the action, taking place off camera and out of sight, means the reader/viewer has to work hard to hang on. But this in part is due to the fact that a screenplay is a transitional form, better read after viewing the film to appreciate how words have been used to create a different form. The finished product will be as much a work of Ridley Scott and all of the big name actors involved as it will be a work by Cormac McCarthy. As such, the words of The Counsellor are, as I said, something of a halfway house. Which isn’t to say that it is not a fine halfway house, adorned in intriguing décor and the like, and more to say that it will be enriched by a viewing of the film (Fassbender’s character, for instance, is a bit wet – it will be interesting to see what he can bring to the part to bring the character, which currently isn’t a million miles away from the conflicted john he played in Steve McQueen’s second film, Shame, to life).

Will we see a novel of The Counsellor at some point – or the draft of the unfinished fragment that may or may not be called The Passenger? Undoubtedly McCarthy is as fond of the visual form as he is of the novel (in addition to Whales and Men, there are of course The Stonemason, The Gardener’s Son and The Sunset Limited which demonstrate the point). With James Franco’s adaptation of Child of God on the horizon following The Counsellor there is bound to be another surge of interest in McCarthy, which may mean more adaptations, may mean the reissue of The Gardener’s Son, which was shown on American TV two decades ago and has never made it over to our side of the pond at all, and may, fingers crossed, mean more in the way of original McCarthy material. There are apparently three novels he is working on. Will they see the light of day? Will they be finished? Only time will tell…

Any Cop?:  A piece of work that undoubtedly requires more involvement from the reader than is usual and through which we can see the possibility of The Counsellor making for a great movie.


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