Let’s get this straight out of the way: Cormac McCarthy doesn’t really know how to write a screenplay. The McCarthyisms are all present, the themes and fixtures are there, but the coherence is lacking and much of the chaff remains unseparated from the wheat. You’ve probably heard about the car-fucking scene, right? There is a car-fucking scene. Somehow this made it into the final draft. Cormac McCarthy presumably wrote several drafts of this screenplay, his bony, churchyard-gray knuckles pounding out the tarnished keys on his vintage 1913 typewriter, dust pluming upwards, the typewriter’s Ford V8 engine hacking out bits of itself on the floor – and a scene that made it to the final draft is one where the character of Malkina fucks a car.
If it’s not apparent already, this film is a tire fire. It does not know if we should take it seriously, if it’s pure camp, if it’s just pulpy, if we should feel emotion for its protagonists, etc. Nonetheless it marshals some reasonably engaging symbolism and metaphor and has a particular message which however well known, bears repeating, and wriggles out, slimy and embarrassing, of the plot-shell of “drug deal gone wrong.” Then, having repeated this particular message, the film fails once more. It is a bad movie I will give some points for at least being bad in an interesting manner.
To fore-go a slow reveal of the intricacies of a preposterous film, the main characters of “The Counselor” can be broken down like this: Michael Fassbender, as a criminal lawyer, is the Just One Big Deal and I’m Out guy; Brad Pitt is the Knowing Insider; Javier Bardem is the Playboy Gangster; Cameron Diaz is Greed, or Capitalism itself, a lover of Bardem and a double-agent who rots the drug deal from the inside out. More or less. Possibly less. Is it ridiculous to say that a character in this film stands in for unfettered capitalism? Yes, almost certainly. Yet it seems to be the case. Cameron Diaz’s character Malkina, a White Barbadian, takes on a version of the Judge Holden/Anton Chigurh archetype, the force of evil which can’t be resisted.
You may have noticed that I did not mention Penelope Cruz. That is because although she receives top billing she does not really have a character. She is just The Wife of One of the Characters in This Film. Like all of the characters, her personality is mainly driven by gestures and expressions, but with the difference that she gets less screen time and has no agency. There is even more nothing there than the nothing there of other characters. Her scenes with Fassbender, her husband, remind me of what Subashini acidly called “the heterosexual neo-liberal couple”; the well-off couple for whom reality is either a swirling, intruding cloud bank ruining their perpetual sunny day, or a waiter that exists to serve their self-absorbed inward exploration. But the fundamental distinguishing component here is not just clueless hedonism, but privileged contempt for anyone who is not the four-legged Neo-liberal couple. Fuck you, I’m in love. The structure of the film enhances this. Why are we being shown this romantic dinner/love scene when it is clear it has no point? Fuck you, I’m in love.
Michael Fassbender’s affluent criminal lawyer has no actual reasons for wanting to get involved in the sale of heroin. His lifestyle is one encased in comfort, filled with plush couches, the free pursuit of orgasms with “exotic women”, and organic, grass-fed steaks. But there is that emptiness in the center of his comfort, a kernel of corruption, and the tie that binds all of the characters together: greed.
The way Fassbender’s character is presented, it is as if he is literally all surface. As if he could be viewed under glass like the diamond he buys for his fiancee, and refract nothing but what the light gives him. We know nothing of his history. We see him enmeshed and cozy in various wealthy ecosystems, but we do not see how he got himself there, if he was born into those circles or if he dragged himself into them. His character, like all the others, is a hollowed out type, and the series of extraneous and purposeless character-building scenes that litter the screenplay do not edify. It might be difficult, one could say, to represent the constitutive the biographical details of a being purely constituted of image. As William Gass noted, in a review of Susan Sontag’s book on photography: “…the image has done more than smother or mask or multiply its object. My face is only photography, and people inspect me to see if I resemble it.” Exchange “being” for “face” and “wealth” for “photography,” and you have a basic formulation of this situation. My being is only wealth, and people inspect me to see if I resemble it.
Things end poorly, of course. Cormac McCarthy was involved. This should not come as a surprise. In fact, the exact circumstance of everyone’s demise is predicted by Pitt’s Knowing Insider, in a way that, rather than meticulously tying the pretty bow of the plot, dishevels things once more as if to ensure that you had no illusions of how unprofessional the proceedings had been. Rather than delving into this tired, whining machinery of plot, I’d rather get to Cormac’s ham-fisted themes. And they are ham-fisted, alright. He is holding two giant hocks of ham for hands and waving them around in front of our faces.
The biggest theme cutting through the bullshit of the film is that of white, upper middle-class emptiness and corruption, and the invisibility of the origins of first-world comfort. In this film, luxury is a maelstrom or vortex that drags one downwards into its orbit. A serious thought that went through my head while watching the sheik parade of designer-clothing clad fauna amidst their natural, blue blood habitats – croquet matches (do you call them matches?), poolside sun-basking, quietly murmuring five-star restaurants – was, “Rich people are disgusting.”
Yet American affluent emptiness is secondary in theme to the invisibility of the origins of comfort. At the end of the film, Malkina pays an American woman to extract personal information from Brad Pitt’s insider. When that American realizes that her envelope of bills comes at the price of Pitt’s life, she returns it, to which Malkina responds, “Americans are so dependable.” This is a textbook example of consumer alienation from the product consumed. Likewise, Fassbender’s counselor naively believes he can pitch in money for a heroin deal and receive a nice bank transfer at the end without getting his manicured hands dirty. And this is the primary failing of American first-world comfort, according to this film: it wants the steak, but not the slaughterhouse. In this film, Americans are the citizens of Omelas.
Unfortunately for the stylish, gym-toned hologram of the counselor, his heroin deal is preyed upon by a business founded on robbing heroin deals. This depiction of layered capital (business growing on other businesses like barnacles) brought to my mind the S.A.T. prep industry attaching itself to the higher education system, even though it is more of a tamed remora operation, whereas the heroin-thieves are parasitic of their parent-industry, and well, kill people. Yet these kinds of comparisons, however strained, are implied by the film, and there is a distinct, although implicit, comparison between the brutality practiced by U.S. capital and the brutality of the cartel’s capital.* One is made glossy by public relations and airbrushed by alienation; the other remains unvarnished and naked. Distinction beyond that, this film suggests, is academic.
The brutality of the cartel in this film, although ostensibly indifferent to image, is just as tied to image as legal U.S. capital. The cutting off of heads and the filming of snuff movies, Brad Pitt’s character says, is not based in hatred or anger; it is, conversely, all about “keeping up appearances.” The cartel is just as invested in the maintenance of image as the cardigan wearing financiers who fill the stands of croquet matches. The grandiloquent speeches given by mysterious cartel figures to Fassbender at the film’s close make something clear – one must keep up one’s image, but be aware that this image is just a hologram, and that in the end one is merely trash waiting to be taken out (a point made clear by Cruz’s body literally getting dumped onto a waste pile).
The problem with first-world image then, is perhaps that it is allowed to entirely swallow one’s being, and to forget that in this economic game everyone is expendable. Not everyone is a pawn, but everyone is a piece on the board, and the cloistering tendency of first-world comfort is to forget that you cannot take yourself off the board. In a sense, the film problematically constructs the periphery as a place more organic and “true,” as not allowing its being to be constituted entirely by image, where cartel gangsters quote Latin-American poets in their luxurious rooms.
Malkina says in the final scene that “you can sell diamonds on Mars.” This is a statement that echoes something said by Judge Holden in Blood Meridian: “Before man was, war waited for him.” It also echoes a quote of Cecil Rhodes, the British mining magnate and colonialist. I’ll quote Hannah Arendt in full here, from The Burden of our Time, courtesy of Edmund Siderius:
‘Expansion is everything,’ said Cecil Rhodes, and fell into despair, for each night overhead he saw, ‘these stars…these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.’ He had discovered the moving principle of the new imperialist era…and yet in a flash of wisdom Rhodes recognized at the same moment its inherent insanity and its contradiction to the human condition.
Capital that conquers the stars, that sweeps out the dark corners of the universe and sets up shop. This is what Malkina stands for, what she is an agent of. I rather dislike McCarthy’s conflation of feminine sexuality with unfettered capitalist greed (see the car-sex scene, among others) and combined with frequent chauvinist statements throughout the script, it seems kinda gross. Like Holden and Chigurh, she is a ruthless, almost supernatural force, but not nearly as compelling – perhaps because she receives less screen time than either, perhaps because McCarthy has not allowed her to directly engage in violence. Nonetheless, she receives the final line honors, the privilege of which she uses to repeat a pet phrase of hers: “I’m famished.” Growth. Amalgamation. Growth. Amalgamation. Etc.
By imbuing a form of economic organization with the same supernatural, eternal qualities he does with evil (i.e. Holden and Chigurh) McCarthy has committed the error of assuming such a form to be as eternal as evil. A contingent economic form becomes as universal as the greed which sometimes propels it. This perhaps smacks of applying a pet narrative unilaterally to places it does not belong, but this strikes me as being ‘capitalist realism’ in the sense Mark Fisher writes of. An economic system is portrayed as a metaphysical force, such that it cannot be altered or fought anymore than one could get into a tank and fight metaphysics. The predominant mood of McCarthy is resignation. The philosophizing cartel gangster says to Fassbender all he can do, all anyone can do, is accept.** Lay down and accept, ye wastrel. The sky is choked black, chimney black, and the land grants no movement. Go down, ye and….wait, sorry, I got lost in McCarthy-ese there. It’s infectious.
Anyway, the point is that this is a Hollywood production, and anytime Hollywood gets on its “Capitalism is bad” soapbox, the only critiques it can make are fangless, and moreover, actually supportive of the state of things. This film is in some ways a piece of capitalist-realism, and the mistake of capitalist-realism is to make that which is artificial natural, and that which is contingent inherent. It utilizes and relies upon a flexible formlessness that pretends to idolize mavericks and non-conformists, and admits critique of itself only as inoculation. It is, in the sense that Bruce Lee meant it, like water. It should be noted that while water can take any shape necessitated by the container it finds itself in, it cannot change the container. In this case, it cannot even turn a bad script into a good movie.
* This is to say nothing of the symbiotic relation between illegal drug cartels and the American war on drugs, which is another theme in the film I did not get to. This was already very loooong.
** I wonder if such a resignation is at the heart of the following statement of McCarthy’s: “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” This is a provocative statement, and one I might unpack at a later time. Viewed in light of this film, it hints that this utopian improvement might reside for Cormac in the economic realm as well, and not just something in human nature.