Sunday 24 November 2013

The Counsellor by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is an impressive writer and I found his novel The Road one of those rare examples of a book which I literally "couldn't put down", reading it into the pre-dawn hours when I should have been sleeping before catching an early flight.

No Country for Old Men was also an amazingly compelling, and grim, novel of great power. In fact, the only thing I've got against McCarthy is his crazed, idiomatic punctuation.

So when I saw a trailer for a new film directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy, featuring some acerbic, memorable dialogue, I had the highest of hopes. The movie, entitled The Counsellor — about a Texas lawyer who comes hideously unstuck when he gets involved in the drugs trade, classic McCarthy territory — also featured a top drawer cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt...

Unfortunately, the movie was for me a major disappointment. McCarthy's script does have some memorable moments and splendid cynical dialogue, especially from Brad Pitt's drug dealer, Westray (great name). But it lacks any centre of gravity and tends to the dull, extravagant, and incoherent.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in the film is the calamitous miscasting of Cameron Diaz as a  preposterous flaming femme fatale.

If you want to see a truly great, taut, cautionary thriller about the drugs trade, and one which genuinely does have something profound to say, check out Who'll Stop the Rain, a magnificent 1978 film directed by Karel Reisz from a great script by Judith Rascoe and Robert Stone, based on Stone's novel, Dog Soldiers.

Or watch the Coen Brothers' adaptation of McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. It's flawed but often brilliant.

Whereas the Counsellor is largely a mess, and a frustrating one. There are a number of scenes featuring the pet cheetahs owned by Javier Bardem's flamboyant drug dealer, and these magnificent beasts are so captivating that one ends up wishing one was watching a movie about them instead. Their reality and naturalness contrast fatally with the artificiality, contrivance and pretensions of The Counsellor.

The one big winner in The Counsellor is Natalie Dormer, credited merely as The Blonde, who makes a stunning impression in a couple of tiny scenes. Like the cheetahs, she is entirely natural and effortlessly convincing. I suspect stardom beckons.

The only other consolation of this film is that it may usher in a new career in screenwriting for Cormac McCarthy, which would mean we could enjoy his writing while being spared his loopy punctuation scheme. 

(Image credits: The posters are from Ace Showbiz except for the one of Natalie Dormer, which is from the official Tumblr site for the movie. The cheetah is from The Dissolve.)

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