Observations on Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counsellor

Ali Gray

19th November 2013

It has been 10 days since I saw The Counsellor, and despite it being an obviously flawed, frustrating film, there's something about it that clings to your subconscious, like recalling the remnants of a nightmare in the cold light of day. Ridley Scott's editor is clearly a goddamn American hero, because he was tasked with cutting down Cormac McCarthy's insanely verbose script for the screen; now, having read McCarthy's original, complete screenplay, I'm happy to share with you a few things I've noticed when comparing page to film.

It goes without saying, this piece is a spoiler minefield. Get the hell out of here if you don't want your day to be ruined by a ruiner.
The screenplay's ending is less ambiguous

Nothing is ever particularly simple in the world of The Counsellor: everyone speaks in riddles and metaphors and it's impossible to get a straight answer, even from waiters. Either through deliberate obfuscation or fudged editing, the film's ending lingers on a few notes of ambiguity. We know Malkina decides to kill Brad Pitt's Westray but we're never sure exactly what her motives are; we assume the body we see in the garbage dump is that of Laura's, but hey, headless corpses are a bitch to identify.

I assumed McCarthy's script would be scant on detail, but in actual fact it sheds some light on these final scenes. In the very last scene, in which Malkina meets with a business associate (played in the film by Goran Visnjic), she's eight months pregnant. We're told the father isn't her ex-lover, Reiner, but that it might well be Westray: when pressed who the baby's daddy is, Malkina replies "The only good father is a dead father". Earlier in the script, Westray talks of sharing women with Reiner and clams up when The Counsellor suggests he's talking about Malkina. It doesn't take Jeremy Kyle's paternity test to figure this one out.

The Counsellor's story, meanwhile, ends on a devastating note, when he receives delivery of what can be assumed to be a snuff film of his wife, Laura, being decapitated. Nothing is ever shown on screen, save for the aforementioned body in the dump, but the detail is there in McCarthy's script, bright as day: the body is Laura, and it's all the Counsellor's fault.
Some of the dialogue doesn't work on the page...

The Counsellor has some brilliant dialogue to get your teeth into, but it has some real stinkers in the screenplay too: "Truth has no temperature" is the one that sticks, but there are others. For example, pillow talk like "God you're a sexy woman" sounds positively Partridge-esque on paper, but it's just about acceptable when delivered by a Casanova like Michael Fassbender, who could probably make tampon instructions sound sexy.

Take this little exchange between Reiner and the Counsellor:

You don't trust her?

Jesus, Counselor. She's a woman.


Er... zing? Needless to say, Fassbender and Javier Bardem sell it in the moment, but on the page there are more than a few conversations like this one that fall flat. And yes, for those keeping track, that's me criticising the writing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of No Country For Old Men. Just so we're on the same page.
... But bits that drag in the movie are fine on paper

If you've seen the film, you know what I mean. There's the casual chat between Reiner and the Counsellor, when the former goes off on a tangent about Cartel killing methods. There's the interminable existential chit-chat between the Counsellor and Westray over a beer which surely goes flat before it's drunk. It's dialogue for dialogue's sake, but obviously no one is going to give Cormac McCarthy notes, like 'Hey Cormy, I love the eight pages about the missing girls of Juarez, but could we maybe get this film down to a lean 90 minutes? Cheers bbz!'

But on the page? These scenes are the best of the lot. That's the nature of the printed word, of course: four lines of direction can spread over several minutes of screen time, but four whole pages of dialogue can be read in half the time. The meatier of the exchanges are by far the most enjoyable scenes, purely because you can race through it instead of wallow through Ridley Scott's slow-paced direction. I realise this sounds like I've just discovered books ("they're like films, but written down!") but it's particularly noticeable in a movie as verbose as The Counsellor.
Cormac McCarthy still has no time for apostrophes

He's an 80 year-old man and he didn't get where he is today by using apostrophes, so there's no need for him to start now. He reminds me of my wife's granddad, who has never eaten pizza in his life, not even once. He's made his mind up: he won't like it, and he's made his peace with that. Replace the pizza with an apostrophe and you sort of see what I'm getting at. I'm not sure whether Cormac McCarthy likes pizza. I'm lost in a web of my own shitty analogies. Send help. And pizza.
Fate of the cheetahs, revealed!

Some wags might say Malkina's cheetahs - that's actual cheetahs, not an awful breast metaphor - are the best characters in The Counsellor, as they look just as stunning as all their human counterparts but don't have to delivery any lengthy diatribes about the dangers of consequences or choices. They make for brilliant set dressing anyway; The Counsellor is the kind of deliberately frustrating film that has powerful animals in its script, but never, ever uses them for entertainment purposes.

Anyway. McCarthy's screenplay gives us a bit more info on Malkina's big cats (seriously, is there no way to describe a woman's feline land mammals without it sounding sexist?), including their names: Sylvia (the girl) and Raoul (the boy). There's a short scene in the screenplay where the cheetahs roam free after Reiner is capped, and one of them finds its way into a swimming pool in a back yard in a residental area, where a small kid watches agog. A bit like the scene with the T-Rex in The Lost World.

We also discover their ultimate fate. Sylvia, who Malkina shows more affection towards than any human, eventually dies of a congenital heart defect, so we're told. Raoul, on the other hand, roams free on the Arizona plains, where he has a big rock to call his own. Aww. Da cute lickle kitty has a happy ending. Fuck all those other dead people.

Incidentally, if JJ Abrams is still looking for a subtitle for Star Wars: Episode VII, I think 'Fate Of The Cheetahs' has a nice ring to it.
There are some great bits not in the movie

You can't blame Ridley Scott for ditching some elements of McCarthy's screenplay for pacing issues, and indeed even on the page they stick out as being unnecessary, but there's much humour that's left out of the movie that would have gone some way to alleviating some of the glumness that turned off so many critics.

For example, there's an early scene with ill-fated biker 'The Green Hornet', who yanks the chain of a supermarket worker by telling her he lost 27 pounds in 30 days eating dog food, but ended up in the hospital; not because it made him sick, but because "I was sitting in the street licking my balls and a car hit me."

Then there's the story told by Reiner (just before he recounts the episode in which Malkina uses her labia to buff his Ferrari's windscreen) about the Brazilian kid who he tricks into asking a girl "I vant to eat your poossy" and gets the night of his life as a result - and a broken jaw when he tries it again a few minutes later. The memorable line? "This guy hit him so hard he came out of his loafers. His loafers are still standing at the table."

There are extra nasty bits too, like how the woman who lends the Counsellor her phone ends up dead as the result of his selfish actions, and of course, the coup de grace of Westray's death - how the paramedics pick up his lifeless body, leaving his head sitting on the floor to the gasps of onlookers. See kids? Sometimes decapitation can be fun!
Cameron Diaz really doesn't do Malkina justice

On the page, Malkina comes across as a charismatic beast: a powerful, lithe, killing machine like one of her cheetahs. On film, Cameron Diaz - who hasn't really done 'sexy' since The Mask - sort of comes off a bit comical. She's not a bad actress, per se, but when you consider Angelina Jolie was Ridley Scott's first choice, Diaz comes up wanting in comparison. You can't get that Anna Faris Lost In Translation pastiche out of your head long enough to be genuinely unsettled or frightened by her. Once a Charlie's Angel, always a Charlie's Angel, or so goes the saying.

In McCarthy's script, Malkina is of Argentinian descent, which makes the decision to make Diaz's interpretation of the character hail from Barbados even more baffling. Though she allegedly re-recorded all of her dialogue to make her sound "less like Rihanna", I for one think that a full blown Bajan accent might have make given Diaz's femme fatale that extra step needed to distance her from her usual goofball persona. Frankly I just want to hear her say "Da slaughterr ta cum is prubly beyon our imaginin, irie?" like Hermes' wife in Futurama.
The Counsellor is in cinemas now. It's also available in all good Amazon now.

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