Ridley Scott doesn’t do feel-good movies. Ridley Scott does movies scored with the sounds of desperate women warbling in Middle Eastern tones. Even when Ridley Scott decides to make a feel-good movie, he still uses Russell Crowe, as if to say, “Not so fast.”
Early on in his career, Scott tapped into something profoundly mythic (Alien), and then he did it again on his very next try (Blade Runner), and then he kind of did it again (Thelma & Louise) after a few failures. Since then, he has soared to the very heights of adequacy several times. His most honored film, Gladiator, is arguably his most mediocre, as it neither eclipses the wretchedness of Hannibal or American Gangster, but neither is it unwatchable. “Father to a murdered son. Husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next,” so the Gladiator reflects on himself. As a teacher of classics, I always wonder if Hollywood-types keep anyone who reads old books on the sets of such period pieces— anyone, that is, who might have explained a Roman vision of the afterlife and why no one person was going to exact revenge on anybody there. I wondered the same thing while watching Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a film no more schooled in Medieval history or conviction than, say, John Cleese.
The Counselor was written by Cormac McCarthy, who I imagined somewhat differently before finding out that he had consented to work with Scott. McCarthy is brilliant and standoffish, author of numerous shoe-ins for American high school lit classes sixty years from now. He seems to know a remarkable lot about very terrifying, disgusting things and is capable of describing them with what seems like first-hand knowledge. All of this to say, I imagined he would have spat in the eye of any agent who wanted to tie him to a project helmed by the fellow who directed G.I. Jane. Or maybe McCarthy is a prankster. The script he gave Scott was far more than Scott could do.
So far as plots go, The Counselor is a boilerplate bad drug deal yarn. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) buys into a drug deal which goes wrong, and he is implicated, although he is innocent. His wife Laura is kidnapped by the Cartel and he must get her back.
Everyone is very chatty, though. McCarthy has written something more like a play than a film. Lengthy speeches, horror, defilement and a lachrymose unfinished quality to the third act, The Counselor is a footnote to Sophocles’ Theban plays. Sophocles conceived of man as the god-beast; unlike the beasts, man was rational and could contemplate, but unlike the gods, man possessed a body and would die. Hence, only man was given to contemplate the certainty of his own death, and so human life was necessarily tragic. Man could improve his lot by way of wisdom, but was yet subject to corruption; while man might change through growth in knowledge, knowledge is never enough to save a man.
Sophocles presages some of the darkest passages in Augustine’s City of God, as well, wherein the great bishop delves into lengthy descriptions of the misery of this present life. In Book XIX, Augustine suggests that while the righteous judge certainly grants a verdict, that verdict is never certain. A prudent judge would never wager his immortal soul on the certaint rightness of his own legal opinions, and yet he truly sentences a man found guilty of murder to die in the gallows.
Inquisition: Did you sentence this man to die for the crime of murder?
Inquisition: Was this man put to death?
Inquisition: Are you certain of his guilt?
Judge: No. Sadly. It is not possible to know with certainty the conscious of another.
For Sophocles, as well as for Augustine, the certainty of human action, and the certainty of human responsibility, is never met by an equally certain knowledge. Thus all actions are ultimately revealed to occur in darkness. Sophocles’ characters are ever kicking themselves for not seeing what seems so obvious in hindsight, either because the gods blinded them to the truth, or else because the truth was too painful to admit, or because they were distracted by some petty project which occupied them thoroughly.
McCarthy is no Sophocles, although he borrows from Sophocles’ sense that in anything and everything inevitable, there is something dark and ugly. Goodness dwells in unapproachable light, it is not worshipped with men’s hands or comprehended by men’s minds. Goodness is the ever-unknown God, and all entrance into the unknown God is mystery. Eternal life is eternal precisely because the infinite God cannot be eclipsed by finite man. There is nothing inevitable about God; inevitability is finality, but God is infinite. The Devil, on the other hand, is eminently predictable and absolutely certain. In the first act, when the Counselor meets the wheeling-deeling Westray (Brad Pitt, bland but for his exit), through whom he intends to buy into a possibly lucrative drug deal, Westray tells him several times to back out. The Counselor offers no rebuttal, but neither does he give up. He presses forward for no good reason, illogically and unexplainably. As with St Augustine, McCarthy presents evil as having no efficient cause. Evil is a deficiency, an absence, a negation, a cancer. It serves no purpose, has no telos and makes less sense the more oft it is repeated. Evil is madness.
When everything goes south, as we are told it will, the Counselor makes a few paltry attempts at damage control, runs, places some phone calls and wonders around terrified, but concedes to his fate quickly, all things considered, and the film ends. Nearly every other film of this kind would carry on another forty five minutes, showing the Counselor refusing to go quietly into that good night and finally, if not recovering the lost woman, at very least avenging her death in cataclysms and paroxysms of bloodshed. McCarthy pulls the plug very, very early, though. After the Counselor is delivered a DVD which almost certainly depicts the torture and murder of Laura, Scott cuts to an image of her headless body being turned over in a sprawling landfill. Fassbender explodes in tears. The villains are shown dining sumptuously, and blathering contentedly amongst themselves. The devil prepares a table for his own, and serves his own, in the presence of his own. Everyone devours everyone else.
The film is not without a little charm (Javier Bardem hilariously decked out in Versace) or mystery (cheetahs), but you will not leave the theater thinking on these things. Something should also be said in favor of Fassbender, who knows his own face like the back his hand. Cameron Diaz is the consciousless killing-machine Malkina (is this not the name of a Mortal Kombat character?), and gives a rather unstudied performance, although Diaz is so thickly made up, I wonder if the blandness was not intentional.
Given works like Blood Meridian and The Road, at times McCarthy seems an apophatic theologian, interested in throwing goodness into high relief through a detailed and nuanced examination of wickedness. Such works are created to appeal to us at our worst, in our darkest hours, but offer no respite. It is a little curious that “Things could always be worse” is such a common consolation, or so McCarthy would have us know. Oh, could things be worse? And how? And how little keeps them from becoming worse?