“The world in which you seek to undo the mistakes that you make, is different from the world where the mistakes were made. You’re now at the crossing. And you want to choose, but there is no choosing. There’s only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.” ~ The Jefé
I am a man who stands at the crossing. Make no mistake, there’s a difference between the crossing and the crossroads. The crossroads is a juncture. The crossing is the point of no return. I stand now past the point of no returning. I have made my choices. There is no going back.
I don’t know what compelled me to go out and see The Counselor alone. It was perhaps, given my new sensitivity to violence and darkness, not a good choice. But I have long been an admirer of Cormac McCarthy and have widely credited him as an inspiration and catalyst for my writing and for my novel, Serpent Box.
I’ve read all of McCarthy’s novels. I admire them greatly. His one-act play, The Sunset Limited, is breathtaking and was made into a powerful film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. I’ve read All the Pretty Horses five times and Blood Meridian three. But my favorite is called The Crossing. It is fitting that in The Counselor McCarthy returns to a theme that demands my attention.
This is not a film blog. I am not a movie critic. I write about photography and fiction and the subtle meanings they reveal in me. But film and literature play an important role in my understanding of my life. Great films and great literature can reveal who I am and who I was. They can offer me clues as to where I am going. God sends me messengers in many forms. A phone call made in error. The discovery of a carcass of a buck deer picked clean to the bone. An unexplained compulsion to go to a movie alone. When you find yourself at the crossing you start paying attention. The murmur of a hummingbird, the falling of a leaf. Beyond the crossing all things become talismanic.
The Counselor is a Bright Noir complete with all the tropes of the traditional, chiaroscuro form. Men steeped in greed and doomed by bad decisions are powerless against Praying Mantis women who, between their legs, hold the skeleton keys to their demise. It is a tough film to watch. It’s dark and marred by violence that is sexualized and gory. McCarthy’s worldview is a triptych composed of darkness, sex and violence, which work in conspiracy beneath the hand of an evil that is irrevocable and deeply ingrained in us. I find the film and this worldview disturbing, unsettling and sad. And I believe it to be untrue.
Cormac McCarthy does more than merely suggest that God has long abandoned us. He proclaims it. His stories offer only mere glimmers of light. They are, with few exceptions, absent of hope. He is obsessed with Hell as embodied by the land of Mexico, the carnal nature of man and the poisonous essence of women. To McCarthy we are the lost children of an absent Father cursed forever by the Mark of Cain. We are doomed by a myriad of poor choices that will lead to an impending slaughter that is, in the words of Malkina, the film’s ruthless femme fatale, “Beyond our imagining.”
McCarthy’s meme is apocalypse. His proof is the violence, brutality and cruelty portrayed by the media as the world’s dominant paradigm. His notion is that death has no meaning. Thus either does life. And though it may seem true, and cool, and hip and even kind of macho to get on board with these ideas, these energies, I call them out as destructive, cynical and wrong. We all make poor choices. And our collective choice to permit violence and its depiction as an acceptable norm can no longer stand. As a writer, I grew up on Cormac McCarthy. But as I evolve as a spiritual human being I am seeing him now with eyes anew.
How can you know, as a child, that a decision you make, a decision that at the time doesn’t seem to be a decision at all, will lead you on a thirty-eight year odyssey of self-destruction and self-deception that will deliver a miraculous self-discovery and re-birth? How could you possibly know that it would take you almost four decades to make that hazardous journey from boy to man? Each little decision node affects small shifts in the ripples of time. The unforeseen consequences mounting, year after year. The wreckage piles up behind you but to that you are willingly blind, until the day comes when you wake up from the dream. In my case I was awakened by another dreamer, who showed me the truth and taught me that the meaning of love is the willingness to die in one form in order to fulfill another. I am dying now sister. I am dead. But I believe in the resurrection. Today I am reborn.
In The Counselor this death is literal. Michael Fassbender, who is brilliant in the title role, does a deal with the devil in the form of the Mexican cartels. He’s no stranger to that world however. He understands, he claims, the risks and ramifications. He is advised not to do this deal. He is warned. But he’s arrogant, he’s greedy and he’s compelled by forces that seem beyond his control. What are those forces? Is it something about being a man, is it biological? McCarthy seems to think so. Is it the human ego that believes it, rather than God, is the true creator? Or is it sex? Is it the cycle of lust itself that creates the delusion that we are invincible, that we can keep getting more and more?
The Counselor’s lover and fiancé, Laura (Penelope Cruz) is beautiful, young and innocent. It’s her he puts at risk through this venture for she is the precious object of his desire that he stands to lose – though he fails to see this until it’s too late. Our choices, once we make them, cannot be taken back. They cannot be undone. And as I sat there alone in the dark wondering why I was watching this brutal movie, I kept wanting to leave, to get up and walk out. But something held me in my seat. It wasn’t the sex or the violence, that I could not stand to watch. I turned away from it. It was something else. There was a message waiting for me there. I just had to be patient and endure.
The camera and the editing bay may have been under the direction of Riddley Scott, but The Counselor is McCarthy’s creature. As in his novels, he is the master of his characters, dialog and scenes. Not even an auteur can ignore McCarthy’s sluglines. He anchors his stories so firmly in landscape and visual details that I expect he left Mr. Scott little choice in alternatives to his vision. And that vision is bleak. The sex and he violence and a myriad of foreshadowing seemed to me blatant self-aggrandizement, as if McCarthy is saying “Look, I can concoct unforgettable screen imagery too. I can invent scenes that will be talked about and remembered.” And there are some doozies in The Counselor – the wire trick, the oil drum passenger, the bit with the yellow Ferrari. But none of them were necessary to advance the film’s ultimate truth; which pays off in a scene close to the end. And this is where my message was waiting. As in real life, I had to endure a lot of uncomfortable and unnecessary carnage in order to understand the purpose of the journey.
It’s not a spoiler to say that things go terribly wrong for the Counselor. That’s just inherent in this kind of film. But also, it’s so telegraphed that a child with a reasonable film education could see what’s coming. In total desperation and in fear for his life and the life of his beloved the Counselor makes a daring phone call to the head of the cartel, the Jefé, played by Reuben Blades, in an attempt to make some kind of bargain. But of course that is not possible. This is the most powerful scene and the one in which McCarthy demonstrates his great genius, that for the grand, all-encompassing, philosophical monolog of timeless truth. And he makes the remarkable choice of delivering this truth over the telephone.
“Actions create consequences”, the Jefé says. “Consequences which produce new worlds, and they’re all different. Where the bodies are buried in the desert, that is a certain world, where the bodies are left to simply evolve, that is another. And all these worlds, heretofore unknown to us, they must have always been there, have they not?”
Michael Fassbender sweats profusely in the seat of his car, parked along a crowded Juarez street. He’s frantic, hoping there is still some chance of resolving this dispute.
“I would urge you to see the truth of the situation you’re in Counselor”, the Jefé tells him. “That is my advice. It is not for me to tell you what you should have done, or not done.”
I, too, know what it feels like to wish to have your actions undone. If only we could go back and do a thing differently. If only the person we hurt could see how sorry we are, how stupid we know we have been. Surely this knowing counts for something. And that’s what I’ve been living on these past weeks, the hope that the person I hurt would understand that *I* understand what it is I’ve done, so that we could fix things and try again. Isn’t being truly sorry enough? Isn’t knowing we’d never, ever hurt them again?
“Reflective men often find themselves at a place removed from the realities of life.” The Jefé tells him. “In any case we should prepare a place where we can accommodate all the tragedies that sooner or later will come to our lives, but this is an economy few people care to practice.”
We should all prepare a place where we can accommodate our tragedies. What does this even mean? I suppose it means that we should understand that bad things are going to happen to us and we should be ready for them when they do. But is that possible? Can we really see the great consequences that befall the accumulation of so many little actions? I think the film is telling us that we should. And to that I can agree.
The Jefé then shifts gears. He zags in another direction to illustrate his point.
“Do you know the words of Machado?” He says.
He’s referring to the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado and he recites to him a line from one of his more famous poems.
“Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.”
This is from Campos de Castilla. The stanza, translated and quoted more fully is this:
Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.
When we stand at the crossing we have left the trodden road to embark upon a path of our own creation. That is what it means to be aware of ourselves and to be living in the truth. We must accept the consequences of our choices, even if those consequences are unthinkable and we cannot imagine or understand them. When we find ourselves at the crossing we must consider ourselves blessed for recognizing that this is where we stand, and further, we must march bravely on. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the willingness to move on through it anyway.
“You are the world you have created.” The Jefé tells him. “And when you cease to exist that world you have created will also cease to exist.”
Three hours before I stepped into that movie theater I took a long, meandering walk through a meadow of high grasses and oak trees. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was compelled to walk and so I did. There I stumbled upon the carcass of a buck deer, picked so clean by vultures and coyotes that there was nothing left but white bone held together with sinew dried leather stiff. I looked down on that crazy skeleton and for the life of me I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. What does it even mean to be living? If I don’t understand living, how can I possibly understand death? There’s no point in wasting one moment’s thought on a mystery such as this.
The Counselor is a movie that called to me after I realized that something I thought was still living was in fact dead, and there was nothing I could do to bring it back. Though I tried and I tried. God knows that I did. In the beginning of the movie, Javier Bardem (fantastic) asks Cameron Diaz (scarily good as Malkina) if he reminds her of somebody.
“Yes,” she says “You remind me of somebody who’s dead.”
“Do you miss him?” He says.
“I don’t miss things.” She says. “To miss a thing is to hope that something will come back. But it won’t come back. I’ve known that since I was a little girl”
I cannot say I liked The Counselor. But it is a powerful film, beautifully crafted and written. The acting and direction is excellent. It is a slick, technically proficient achievement. But it is overwrought with imagery and gimmicks that are wholly superfluous to the theme.
But if the mark of a great film is that the viewer takes away a valuable kernel of truth, an understanding of himself that he didn’t quite have before, then The Counselor is a great film. I did learn something from it. I learned that despite my regrets and what I might hope, I have made choices, for years I have made choices, that all led to this moment in which I find myself standing alone for the first time facing loss and grief but also the miracle of living. And there is no way out of this. There is no escape and there is no numbing. I will feel it, and it will pain me but I will not suffer much longer because that is not what God wants for us, to suffer. Suffering is not part of the deal. It’s only what we have chosen.
Malkina may be right. To miss something is to hope it will come back. So be it. I do miss what I lost. To surrender that hope is to give up that part of being human that Cormac McCarthy seems to have forgotten. I thank him for all he’s done for me. He taught me much. But Cormac and I have grown apart. That love I had for his vision died along with the boy who used to believe in it. I’m at the crossing. I’ve moved on.
o O o