The Pulitzer Prize-winning author tops off his fine novelistic trajectory with a screenplay for Ridley Scott’s new film, The Counselorby David Isaacs / October 11, 2013 / Leave a comment
After decades spent writing novels of increasingly muscular beauty, Cormac McCarthy had his first commercial success just before his 60th birthday. Since the publication of All the Pretty Horses in 1992, his stature—critical and popular—has grown steadily. In 2006, aged 73, he won the Pulitzer Prize, and an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, for The Road. A year later the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation of his novel No Country For Old Men swept the board at the Oscars. Now, in his 80th year, he has provided the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s new film, The Counselor, which comes out on 15 November. It will be perhaps his most visible work yet.
McCarthy, in short, has had the ideal writing life: no unrepeatable early successes; no mid-life peak; no senescent descent into obscurity, irrelevance, bloodlessness. His writing life has been one 50-year-long upward trajectory.
Assuming, that is, The Counselor is a success. A brief synopsis of the plot: the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a likeable lawyer who gets involved in a major drug smuggling venture. The deal goes south, coincidences pile up, his (relatively) clean hands look dirty, and he is duly punished.
Judging from the screenplay, published by Picador ahead of its cinematic release, McCarthy may well have reached his “late style”: the point at which artistic convention, order and propriety are discarded and replaced with, in Edward Said’s words, “intransigence, difficulty and contradiction”. Accordingly, there is plenty in the screenplay to alienate and confuse. The script is heedless of motive, sparse on context, and the dialogue is never between more than two characters. So little attention is paid to the film’s plot that even its actors have claimed not to understand it. It is also makes for harrowing viewing.
McCarthy writes intensely visual novels of action and suspense, bursting with cinematic elements and snappy dialogue. These are novels that beg to be filmed. And yet, with the exception of No Country for Old Men—a novel that began life as a screenplay McCarthy wrote in the 1980s—film adaptations of his novels have not fared well.
All the Pretty Horses, which came out in 2000, was a critical and commercial flop. It’s not hard to see why. The film makes too many mistakes to mention. Casting a 30-year-old Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz as…