Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Counselor (The Return Of Roger!!!)

An old friend drops by Scriptshadow to review a screenplay from one of the biggest writers in the world, Cormac McCarthy!

Carson here.  Lots of interest in today's script.  I was going to review it but I know next to nothing about Cormac McCarthy.  I knew if I was going to do this right, I would have to find the greatest living Cormac McCarthy fan in the world, a man who used to grace Scriptshadow with his presence on a weekly basis. But how to find him?  Last I'd heard, Roger Balfour had conned his way onto the set of The Hangover 2 as an extra.  Not sure if he made the cut.  Well, after exhausting my entire Rolodex, I finally found him, dehydrated and half-comatose in a South American dog breeding clinic. When I asked him to review Cormac McCarthy's first screenplay he replied, "Where are my pants?"  That was good enough for me.  -- Now I've been hearing all sorts of things about this script.  Some have called it unreadable (literally! - Cormac invents his own screenplay format!).  Some have called it genius.  And the people who call it unreadable can't fathom how anyone could like this script.  They think the lovers are reading it through Cormac-tinted glasses.  Anyway, I've been too afraid to open it.  I'll let Roger take care of that.  Oh, and just a reminder.  The Disciple Program debuts in three days!!!!!!

Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Premise: A respectable lawyer gets in over his head after becoming involved in the illegal drug business.
About: Deadline Hollywood described this script as “No Country for Old Men on steroids”. McCarthy was at work on three different novels when he turned this screenplay into his agent. Ridley Scott soon attached himself to the project as director, with his Prometheus star Michael Fassbender in mind to play the lead. Interestingly, there are also two female roles up for grabs “who intrude to play leading roles”.
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Details: PDF created on January 20, 2012

Now this is what a writer looks like!

This script made me want to commit suicide. It was so bleak, it made me want to overdose on heroin while skydiving into an avalanche of naked women.

Whoa. Rewind. Roger, where have you been the past year and a half?

Brian K. Vaughan says that the ages between 22 and 27 are important years in a male’s life. The things that happen during that timeframe shape and guide the transformation of a boy into a man. I spent the past year and a half becoming a man.

My journey started in the Philippines, where I worked in the anime industry as a Foley Artist. It was here that I learned someone has to create the sound fx for a tentacle violating an orifice. That someone was me. Sometimes I would do nothing but stand on a soundstage and plunge my hand in and out of a peanut bar jar for fourteen hours straight. I grew a beard and air-licked microphones, the resultant sound was used in children’s cartoons in Australia. But life couldn’t be squishy and honey-roasted forever. 

You can only hide from your destiny for so long before it comes looking for you. And if your destiny is writing, then your destiny kicks you in the teeth, yanks you out of your cushy Foley Artist gig and turns you into a creature of dreaming and longing. 

I spent a lot of time writing poems about He-Man while sitting alone in hotel rooms eating Ritz crackers. I snorted chamomile tea and cat nip through rolled-up Bukowski poems and called it the hipster speedball. The hipster speedball helped me write and publish an Animorphs novel that was about a boy who grows an owl’s beak that was really a Bildungsroman about first boners. I posed for my author photo in front of a shelf full of Star Trek novels and was called gorgeous. I wanted to write a sequel but couldn’t. I got fingered by the ghost of Hal Ashby and for a week all my dreams were like Wes Anderson movies yet to be made. I watched the first season of Downton Abbey in one sitting with a 20-year old girl who thought she was the fifth Pevensie sibling. We held hands the whole time and shared an Edwardian world together but afterwards we never saw each other again. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, I made my own Wilson out of a prenatal body pillow and dealt with my sadness by straddling Wilson and making Wilson watch me punish my Sailor Moon bedsheets. I read fantasy novels and ate confectionaries and did p90X. I became better, stronger, faster and wondered how Tron Legacy got made and if Oblivion would be better. I wondered why they never did a storyline on The Gilmore Girls where a guy dates both the mom and the daughter at the same time. I decided to amend this oversight and wrote the teleplay on spec with me as the guy and when I presented it to Amy Sherman-Palladino she politely informed me the show had been cancelled and she consoled me as I wept into a burrito by saying, “There there, young Balfour. There there. You wrote a Gilmore Girls script. You are a true man, now.” 

Sorry we asked. So, you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor?

Twice. The first time because I’m a legitimate Southern-fried McCarthy scholar and the second time because I only vaguely understood it the first time. Have you ever tried to watch a movie and halfway through, think, “Man, I don’t think I understand the plot but I’m pretty excited by all the violence”? I did that a couple weeks ago when I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. Sometimes when I see art films, I think, “Man, this is pretty unconventional but I also feel sad and I kind of want to stick my head in an oven like Sylvia Plath.” I did that a couple of weeks ago when I saw Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. The Counselor kind of combines both of those ambivalent sensations and does so with Faulkner-in-Sanctuary-mode panache. 

You ever receive a screenplay and open it up and think, “What the fuck is this? A play?” Because I did that, too. As someone who works as a screenwriter, as someone who took many years to adapt to the industry’s formatting and conventions, my first instinct was to scream, “Fuck this guy! How dare he invent his own screenwriting format! Who the fuck does this guy think he is?!”

Oh, it’s Cormac McCarthy. He won the Guggenheim Fellowship, also known as The Genius Award. In addition, not only has he won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Award, but he also won Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Road. With those kind of laurels, you can kind of do whatever you want. 

Still, this raises the question, in the world of screenplays, do we still hold such an author to the same standards as everyone else? When it comes to story and character, yes. But, when it comes to formatting and breaking rules, you’re just gonna have to leave your specialized mindset at the door. There’s an excellent article on creativity in Psychology Today that says, “The more expert and specialized a person becomes, the more their mindset becomes narrowed and the more fixated they become on conforming what they believe to be absolute. Consequently, when confronted with new and different ideas, their focus will be on conformity. Does it conform with what I know is right? If not, experts will spend all their time showing and explaining why it can’t be done and why it can’t work.”

I’m not here to do that. Look, even in the world of novels, McCarthy has always gone against the grain. The man doesn’t like semicolons and uses commas sparingly, so the glue holding all the sentences together are contractions. He never uses quotation marks either. Why should we expect anything different in one of his scripts? He doesn’t see the need for slugs. Diagramming some of his sentences in the AD lines is like a choose-your-own-adventure story. He still writes on an Olivetti typewriter. These pages were probably collected in a shoebox and then quickly retyped by an assistant into MS Word. 

It’s kind of like having a not-playfully racist grandfather who is set in his ways. Sure, you can try to tell him that the word “negress” is not considered proper lexicon in polite society, but what’s the point? He’s just gonna keep on truckin’ till his number’s up. (Double Clich√©). 

So, what’s the story about, Rog?

Think Body Heat or the Edgerton’s The Square but set against the backdrop of the border world McCarthy explores so well in his Border Trilogy and novel, Blood Meridian. If these stories exist in a Venn diagram, they take place inside the circle where the not so insulated worlds of Mexico and the United States collide. This territory is a no man’s land where characters from the so-called civilized world experience great violence and brutality, where destiny has its own gravitational pull and the best at surviving the territory are those who are so damaged they’ve transcended polite society’s moral code. It is a place heroism is not rewarded. It’s punished. If you don’t believe me, look at the ending to No Country for Old Men. In the face of evil, only other predators have a chance at surviving.

So, it’s no surprise that McCarthy chooses to tell a cautionary tale set against the drug war violence that is taking place in Mexico right now. In Mexico, murder has become a national pastime. It is a collective enterprise. And, it is spilling over into our border towns. 

Who are the characters?

This is the tale of the Counselor, a man, who when we first meet him, is in bed with the love of his life, Laura. We see him in Amsterdam, in a jeweler’s shop, procuring the perfect diamond for his bride to be. We’re treated to a philosophical and prophetic lesson from the Dealer. He tells the Counselor the Jewish civilization is the only true civilization, and that any country that has driven the Jews out has never been the same. He waxes a McCarthy monologue about the one true God, who is immovable, and tells us that stones are the true witnesses since they’ve been around since the beginning. When the Counselor picks out his diamond for Laura, the Dealer says, “This is a cautionary stone. You will see.”

Intercut this with the intriguing couple of Reiner and Malkina, who are in the Southwest desert hunting with their pet cheetahs. Yes, this couple, who seem like some kind of S&M Hemingway power-duo, own cheetahs. More specifically, they are Malkina’s cheetahs, and Malkina is the one we ought to be paying attention to. A native of Buenos Aires, we notice the Egyptian cat tattooed on her brown skin. She’s sexy, possessing a Moriarty-like intelligence so cunning even her beau, Reiner, is terrified of her. Another important note about Malkina is that she knows her way around technology, around computers. She might also be quite mad. Perhaps we’re supposed to think she makes Lisbeth Salander seem like a Disney princess in comparison.

The third strand in this tapestry is a septic tank truck that is making its way from Mexico to the United States, which we can assume is loaded up with about twenty million dollars worth of Colombia’s finest. All these elements we are introduced to as the opening credits are playing. 

What’s the caper, Rog?

Much like the protagonists in Body Heat and The Square, the Counselor is motivated by his love and lust for a woman. Because of her, he wants to get rich quick. He decides to go all in concerning a business venture with Reiner, who has learned never to speak in arraignable phrases. Reiner is filthy rich because his demeanor and surroundings and the gifts he provides for Malkina tell us so. And it’s easy to see that Reiner’s source of wealth comes from mines that aren’t always legal. 

The idea is to get into the drug business unnoticed while all the cartels are busy killing each other. That septic tank truck from earlier? It’s carrying 625 kilos of cocaine from Mexico to Chicago and will sell for two grand an ounce on the street, meaning this is a twenty-million dollar payload for all involved. The Counselor asks, “If the drug wars stop this will dry up, right? “Yeah. Bad times are good times for guys like us.”

But, what happens if the cartels find out about this new start-up company? The answer to that question, as we learn in the second half of the script, is very bad things. The characters tell us that three thousand people were killed in Juarez alone last year. We learn something about the nature of the men in these cartels. Before the drug wars, thousands of young and attractive factory workers were being kidnapped and sexually mutilated. The maquila girls, they were called. 

The money trail led to the men in the cartels. “So much cash you’re using it to insulate your own house and you’re morally depraved out of all human recognition, what will you spend your money on?” The answer to that, is snuff films, and we learn that we’re probably not separated more than two degrees by someone who has seen a snuff film. 

When it comes to men who have kidnappers on full retainer, even the smallest little detail becomes life or death for the Counselor and everyone he knows. There’s a lot of talk about the dangers of dabbling into this trade, and in fact, most of the scenes in the script are characters warning the Counselor. One of the characters even quotes Blood Meridian at one point, “Yet even the smallest crumb can devour us.”

So, what’s the crumb that devours everyone, Rog?

There’s a drug runner, a character named Young Man, who is to rendevouz with the septic tank truck and presumably drive it to Chicago. Except, you know, he never makes it to the truck. 

There’s another problem. Not only does the Counselor have to worry about what may become of the drug runner, there are complications with the money people. He has to get money into Mexico and get it back out again. In order to do this, one has to filter the money through a corporation, which means there has to be a money person on the inside handling all of the bank transactions, “The biggest issue is that your guy is not going to fall in love with a pole dancer and go south with three million of your ducats. The biggest issue is that someone is going to find out who he is and what he’s up to.”

In one of the more creative ways of killing a drug runner I think I’ve ever heard about or seen, we learn that there are other parties looking to intercept this shipment of drugs and ruin everything for the Counselor. To complicate matters, the Counselor is linked to the drug runner in a way that is most unfortunate and may redefine dramatic irony. 

It’s interesting to note that the main story involves all of the men in the script, and it dovetails with character revelations concerning Malkina, as shown by her scenes with Laura (she has an ominous dream about Malkina; pay attention to the scene at the confessional) and the stories Reiner tells about her. Although Reiner, being a criminal, is concerned about the cartel men, he is genuinely frightened of his own girlfriend. His views on women could probably be called misogynistic, and it’s the type of misogyny only a man who has been twice divorced can really relish. 

Of course, everything goes wrong for our guys and the most exciting part of the script is seeing how that all unfolds. I’m not exaggerating when shit hits the fan and a line forms to kill the Counselor. My favorite part was seeing how one specific character reacts to all this misfortune and how they enact revenge on some of the parties responsible. 

What do you think attracted Ridley Scott to this script?

Ridley Scott has been trying to adapt Cormac’s novel, Blood Meridian, for a long time now. There’s even a draft floating around penned by William Monahan, but even Scott can be quoted as saying that adapting McCarthy is a difficult gambit because the work is so prosaic, and much of the power comes from the violent beauty of his language. The sentences weave a spell, and I think the closest we get to that in The Counselor are the strange monologues that hint at some darker premonition. 

Take for example a tale by Reiner about his girlfriend, the mysterious Malkina. She’s a lover of fast things. Not only does she own two cheetahs, her club is decorated with actual racing cars. Reiner is scared of Malkina, and he tells the Counselor a true story about how she fucked one of his cars. Here’s his description of her bumping her ugly against the windshield, “It was like one of those catfish things. One of those bottom feeders you see going up the side of the aquarium. Sucking its way up the glass...hallucinatory...You see a thing like that, it changes you.” 

Or, it reminds you of a face hugger sucking at the glass of a specimen jar in Alien, and you can’t help but think McCarthy was trying to seduce Ridley Scott as he wrote this fucking thing. 

So, what’s the verdict, Rog?

I think McCarthy fans, who relish the poetry, tone and cadence of his language, and appreciate his stylized and precise dialogue, will love the movie. And, I’m mainly talking about those who are fans of his play The Sunset Limited or the film version of No Country for Old Men. Because The Counselor has a lot of dialogue, and a lot of the scenes feel play-like in the same way that Tarantino conversations feel play-like. I think it hearkens back to older movies, where there are more scenes of simply people sitting in diners or at tables and desks, talking. 

It’s a challenging piece of art, thought-provoking, no doubt, but I also think it may just be this strange and alienating movie to people who aren’t already fans of McCarthy. It feels exhausting and was certainly a punch to the gut. 

If you subscribe to the Chris Columbus philosophy, the one that says, “I can understand the validity of showing people the ugliness of the world, but I also think there is a place for movies to leave people with a sense of hope. If your film isn’t going to do that, I just don’t think it’s worth making,” then you may be turned off by this work. Cormac writes about life and death, and the concept of hope is often a foreign one in his tales, more the subject of philosophical debate between characters.

My interpretation, after having a chance to let this thing settle for a few days, is that Cormac is making a point. Violence overtook Mexico because so many people closed their eyes to it. If America continues to close our eyes and ignore the drug war violence, it will only be a matter of time before it overtakes us, too. 

On another level, according to the finale, I saw The Counselor as a woman’s revenge story, a femme fatale fuck-you to all the violence done against women in Juarez, Mexico. The Counselor is kind of like the Cormac McCarthy version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Rewarding VS Punishing the Protagonist. Usually, in movies where the hero is being an actual hero, you know, making the right kind of decisions, doing heroic things like be willing to put his life in danger and even sacrifice his well-being to achieve a goal, the common thing to do is to reward the character with victory at the end of the story. But with stuff like Body Heat, The Square, No Country for Old Men and this script, these are all about guys motivated by their lust and love for a woman. They want to spend the rest of their lives with this woman, and they want to illegally land a nice nest egg on which they can retire on with this woman. They compromise their own sense of morality and ethics, and in the audience’s eyes, do something that is considered illegal to obtain this nest egg. Thus begins the downward spiral of making bad decisions that always leads to death, or punishment, for the protagonist. Things just get worse and worse. The rule of thumb for protagonists that do something that upsets the collective audience’s sense of ethics or morals or code of conduct, is to punish the protagonist. If the protagonist were to get away with the caper, this would upset the audience on some level. McCarthy is interesting because he pits this character making bad decisions against predators who just might be the embodiment of evil, so deep down you kind of want these guys to win, but it’s always the most fucked-up person that gets away with their lives in the end and wins the game. It’s something to think about.