This overly promoted film had little to recommend it to me, certainly not the presence of Ridley Scott, whose last compelling film was Blade Runner (1982), made over a generation ago. I was interested in the screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a novelist whose work I view with not much more than contempt, but whose significance is regularly argued by friends I love and by the taste-making culture. So I saw the film.
There is an insistent nihilism that runs through McCarthy’s books, and (somewhat logically) a corresponding attempt by tastemakers to force McCarthy into the pantheon of American authors – he has been compared to Melville, an author whose vast humanity has nothing to do with McCarthy. It took me a long time to buy a copy of perhaps his most celebrated book, Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s western, in part because I was so put off by an advertising blurb on its jacket comparing it to Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Perhaps this should not be blamed on McCarthy. I assumed this meant that the book is “bloody” or “gritty” or both. There is no need to make distinctions, of course, between Peckinpah, who was one of the last great dramatists and moralists of the old Hollywood (when he wasn’t poisoned by the nonsense ideas of Robert Ardrey) and Leone, who offered a truly caustic and witty European vision of nineteenth-century America. McCarthy’s novel, like No Country for Old Men and The Road, offers an apocalyptic vision of America that avoids material history. To its credit, the novel No Country for Old Men, as opposed to the film by the Coen brothers (which, like all their work, contains a strain of cynical humor throughout – they may be the parents of the “dramedy”) occasionally sees the evils besetting postmodern America as a consequence of the attack on Vietnam, although matters of cause and effect are obscure. An old-fashioned country sheriff feels overwhelmed by modern barbarism – the point seems to be that the apocalypse flows from onrushing male impotence. The sheriff is comforted by a dream of his dead father, waiting for him in the darkness of the hereafter; in the inferno at least patriarchy can be restored. Similar views control The Road, McCarthy’s most sustained vision of The End, one wherein the wife/mother simply splits the scene (is she fed up or simply negligent?), clearing the way for final father-son bonding during the end of days. After the father’s sacrifice, the son is united with a new family, assuring a new cycle in time under the same assumptions, which, admittedly, might be read as a condemnation, but McCarthy again avoids a political reading of history.
The Counselor concerns a very well-off lawyer known simply as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) who for some reason (I think I heard the line “my back is against the wall,” or something like this) decides to carry out a one-time-only major drug buy with his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Reiner’s ally Westray (Brad Pitt). Reiner lives in the most postmodern of postmodern houses, stuffed with luxurious excess of the worst possible taste. He is a comical demon; like Counselor and other characters, he is meant as an archetype, an emanation from the beyond and a reverse Mephistopheles full of warnings that the gates of hell might open. Westray does the same thing, clad in western gear and a cowboy hat (suggesting, ultimately, the deflation of American expansionist ideas, but only if one is generous to the film’s enterprise) with dialogue that is a kind of existentialist patois, full of ruminations about the grim absurdity of life. Sure enough, things go very wrong fast, and the hounds of hell are unleashed (in one moment almost literally, although they are feline). We are given some evocative moments, such as Mexico’s poorest of the poor incorporated into menial work for the drug cartels. There are hints about drug money being integrated into the world of finance capital, but nothing that could be construed as accusatory (for real information, I would suggest Alfred McCoy’s masterful The Politics of Heroin, or Alexander Cockburn’s Whiteout, or the writings of Peter Dale Scott).
The film’s first half laboriously sets up an atmosphere of cosmic dread; the second half is essentially a blood bath, as everything the Counselor cares for is reduced to nothing, including his beautiful fiancé (Penelope Cruz), mutilated and thrown into a vast garbage dump. Where life isn’t rendered as cruel and vacant, it is suggested to be so much feces, through the visual gag of septic tank trucks used by the cartel to carry their goods. The Counselor ends up shivering in a hovel, a postmodern Joseph K stripped utterly of any sense of self, his vast personal wealth not even able to get him a good lawyer. In this, the film might at least be said to examine the decrepit state of the male subject, but this flies in the face of the real power of the lords of Wall St. and their representatives at the bar.
The brutalization of the audience by such foolishness can never be complete without the demonization of the female. Cameron Diaz, one of the least interesting yet overused actors of the era, is the ultimate spider lady, a femme fatale of, again predictably, voracious sexual appetites. Her evil naturally flows from these appetites, as the female genitals themselves become a symbol both of fascination (the male, both in the film and in the audience, is once again constructed as a juvenile) and awful dread, mainly through a sex act that is the film’s ludicrous centerpiece, and has become the talk of the journalistic town.
When one gets McCarthy’s vision – and you get it by simply going in, if you know his work – the only substance is simply bloody spectacle, albeit more cleverly done by Scott than what we see in the average blockbuster. Cormac McCarthy is one of many postmodern artists interesting mainly at the symptomatic level. He is convinced, so it seems at present, that we are all finished, that there is nothing left for the human species, that all forms of art are drained of their power to instruct or enrich, and are worth citing merely as a means of showing their impoverishment – and of course people like Cormac McCarthy are savvy prophets having no hand in this impoverishment.
The idea of apocalypse has been a controlling feature of American culture since colonial times, containing as it does an ahistorical vision of human interchange beloved of the Puritan fathers and their heirs. The apocalypse gained new currency with the despair following the collapse of 1960s dreams of social change (as many ignored how much had been changed), as part of my generation, made cynical by Vietnam and Watergate, embraced Reaganism, which in turn embraced the ideology of Armageddon as the power structure of the US ramped up the Cold War in ways not seen since the Kennedy years. At the same time, the migration of capital southward, and the South’s rejections of civil rights for racial minorities, produced new political and financial power in what is now termed the Neoconfederacy; the South’s ascendancy, combined with the impoverishment of major industrial cities with capital’s doctrine of neoliberalism and deindustrialization, saw an incredible wave of born-again religiosity, and an embrace of apocalypse as a form of wish-fulfillment in all aspects of life – there is no need to elaborate, given the amount of attention paid to death and disaster, to zombies and human disintegration in the cinema and everywhere in popular culture.
The Counselor is indeed another symptom, but as such it should, I can only hope, help to refocus us on the nature of the disease.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is currently writing about Bruno Dumont.