The Counselor: Anti-Message Movie


I just finished a 10,000 word piece about The Counselor, the 2013 movie directed by Ridley Scott from a script by Cormac McCarthy. The piece is called “Black Magic Realism: Moral Dilemma, Ironic Detachment, & New Levels of Depravity in The Counselor,” and it may run in Spanish at Pijama Surf eventually. I’m also looking for somewhere to place it in English. Meanwhile, here’s a few highlights.

In a way, the critical reception of the film actually confirms its meaning, and I would guess that the people who say The Counselor is a bad movie, who call it incoherent, self-important, or pretentious, are unconsciously looking for ways to dismiss its bleakly seductive, existentially devastating vision. The world most critics and audience members are living in is a very different world to the world portrayed by The Counselor. The Counselor is heavily stylized, and there’s a shallowness to it that seems incompatible with what we usually think of as art; but it’s also grimly real, and it doesn’t offer the sort of ironic detachment that audiences are used to getting from violent, nihilistic movies, post-Tarantino. I think that McCarthy’s raw-boned stew is more than most moviegoers have the stomach for.

As a vision of evil The Counselor is completely persuasive. Its depiction of soullessness as eerily sumptuous, even sickly erotic, of moral incoherence as the driving force behind civilization, makes it almost Lovecraftian. With its relentless, seductive insistence on horror as the soul of the plot, it may be the first really postmodern horror film. By going all the way into the nihilistic perspective of a godless universe, it achieves what Coppola failed so spectacularly to do with Apocalypse Now, and takes us all the way into the American heart of darkness.

And—surprise, surprise—it’s in Mexico.

Probably critics ignored [the political] material of the film for a number of reasons. Firstly, The Counselor isn’t the kind of socially conscious movie that obliges audiences to think deeply about its subject matter. It’s not Schindler’s List, Gandhi, or Philadelphia, and it almost dares us to take it seriously at that level. Secondly, more importantly, these aren’t social issues that most critics, especially not American critics, are willing to look at, and even if they were, the publications they write for probably wouldn’t allow them to.

While I was working on this piece, I went to the movies to see American Hustle. Before the film started, there were three previews. The first one was for Heaven Is For Real, the next for the new Jack Ryan movie, Shadow Recruit, and the last for Lone Survivor, a supposed true story about “an elite unit of Navy SEALs who encounter an army of Taliban forces in the Afghanistan mountains during a raid in 2005.” The first movie is obviously a blatant work of Christian propaganda about how good people (including a soldier) go to Heaven; the second is yet one more glamorization of CIA skullduggery; the third speaks for itself. What struck me about the trailers was just how brazen the propaganda aspect of Hollywood moviemaking has become. There wasn’t even a token attempt to disguise it. As Herbert Schiller writes in The Mind Managers: “Entertainment is instruction and instruction is ideology.”

The Counselor is a message movie of a particular sort, an anti-message movie. Potentially, it works as an enema to flush out all of those Hollywood poisons until there’s no movie junk left. The message of The Counselor is the message that all these other movies are working overtime to drown out of our awareness. It’s the inescapable truth which empire upon empire (including the Hollywood empire) has been created to keep out, like barbarian hordes threatening to tear down everything we hold “sacred” and “good”—giving the lie to Hollywood’s golden promise of heaven for all good Christian soldiers, and eternal damnation for everyone else.

The Counselor may not be art—it appears to partake of, even revel in, the same depravity it exposes—but then, it’s depicting a world in which corruption has gone so deep that culture and rot are synonymous. There’s no art possible that doesn’t stem from, and subtly promote, moral decay. If I let The Counselor’s dark truth all the way in, I would never watch another Hollywood movie again.

Ironic detachment is the way most “sophisticated” people keep from being overwhelmed by existential horror and moral revulsion as the facts of life unfold around them. Ironic detachment is made easy by movies and TV shows (Breaking Bad was all ironic detachment), because they allow us to feel like we’re being exposed to life’s brutal, bleak realities (violence, corruption, drug addiction, disease, poverty, insanity, and moral collapse) without ever having to feel the brunt of them. This creates a “seen-it-all” superiority and cynicism that’s at the same time pathetically naïve, because it magically locates all the horror outside of our own direct experience, on the other side of a movie, TV, or Ipod screen. The entertained, meanwhile, enjoy the luxurious detachment of the consumer lifestyle that’s been assembled for them, by and through and as a result of all that corruption being miraculously recycled as “entertainment” (though really as instruction and ideology).

If you would like to see the full essay, email me (at jasun at auticulture dot com) for a pdf file.

24 thoughts on “The Counselor: Anti-Message Movie

  1. A great piece of writing so far Jasun; I’d love to read the rest. I haven’t seen The Counselor. Every artist has the right to create and amplify whatever perspective they want, but for whatever reason Cormac McCarthy’s soul is representing, vibrating, portaling, and broadcasting the bleakest of doom perspectives. These kind of movies amplify one version of nihilism, and then (my opinion) that brand of reality literally gets boosted by everyone watching the dumb glam movie version of it. I’m curious if this concentrated dose of horror in movie form solidifies that version reality into our literal 3D world more effectively. If so, then it seems irresponsible and doesn’t serve our culture or anyone very much. Just reading the spoiler synopsis of the Road messed me up for days. Guess that’s my limitation, or I’m sensitive in a healthy and human way.

    In the sci fi section of Cloud Atlas the culture has these swirling crazy holographic combo porn/horror movies. Is this where Hollywood wants us to go, is this where we are headed? Movies like the Counselor, all the horror movie crap are acclimating new generations to low grade low vibrational reality while pretending to be cool. I won’t give this stuff the boost of my attention.

    I went to high school in El Paso and frequently would sneak over to the Mexican discos in Juarez in the years before all the uber drug crime horror and maquiladora murders began. Whatever dark magic is brewing in Mexico is scary and sad. It is a great country and I know its future is bright-somehow, someway. Whatever Persephone journey the country is on; I hope they learn to master the Underworld in a positive sense, and not be victims to it or any other Empire.

    Anyway, thanks for the great writing as always Jasun. Kim

  2. Thanks Kim. Curious how you took my description as a negative representation of the movie. I didn’t see it as in any way glorifying crime or violence, as so many movies do nowadays, and I don’t see CMcC’s vision as a nihilistic vision but as a vision of nihilism, which is different. That the film was such a crashing failure is evidence of its relative integrity, maybe.

  3. I’ve not heard of this movie but I am interested in seeing it. The nihilism of empire is so blatant. The empirelings don’t want to know, though. Before I saw your comment, I had a look at those rating sites and saw the low marks and thought – might be alright, then.

    I look forward to seeing the full essay.

  4. Hi, sorry for the off post but I was wondering if you believe in the reality of psi phenomena (esp, acts of magic, etc.), and if you could give me your e-mail address if you’re interested in communicating.


  5. Jasun I read your full article this morning and wish I read it first before initially commenting. I have a better context now; it’s a brilliant article and I hope you circulate the full version far and wide. You certainly compiled a great overview on many levels. And yes I agree there is a big distinction between a vision of nihilism and a nihilistic movie, for the mind at least.

    I’m glad you provided the links to delve further into the fact that drug money cash, big bank money laundering, the exploitation side of capitalism, and the governments themselves are all miserably linked. Books like Charles Bowden’s book Down by the River (published over 10 years ago) have been documenting these facts for years. Same goes for your spotlighting the Hollywood/CIA connections and the Tony Scott suicide.

    It’s not for me to judge or even know if Cormac and Ridley are creating low vibration mind food, high art, or B level masonic sorcerer’s theater (to use one of your terms Jasun). But if it is low vibration mind food, maybe the ratings were dismal because people don’t want to eat it anymore, and not because they don’t know what is going on out there.

    In your last paragraph you write “The problems it presents aren’t just social or political problems; they aren’t even exclusively human ones. They are also metaphysical problems, and they are all equally unsolvable.” I’m just not going to “buy” that all our social, political, and metaphysical problems are unsolvable. Instead of taking this perspective I chose to create in my own way on a humble sovereign individual level, and at least attempt to “solve” or contribute to society in whatever way I am able.

    I used to make my living off royalties of my product designs, and that money came from the cheap manufacture of my designs that were made in China. I always felt sickened and guilty by this part of it, and eventually completed my contracts. And since making that decision I have certainly been financially poorer for it, and been forced to trust something bigger than myself to make it day by day. What I have noticed is that weaning myself off the Matrix “as is” feels pretty good, and I can make a living without exploiting someone else.

    And yes, I’m still typing away on my Mac (made by possibly exploited people in a factory) and I’m still paying my taxes (but reading Peter Eric Hendrickson). After reading a book like Down by the River, I’m sure as hell not taking drugs or pharmaceuticals of any kind. I was born into and am participating in a world and systems I didn’t create myself, but falling into powerlessness mentalities doesn’t help me move forward in my daily 3D life. I’m enjoying my current experiment in seeing just how sovereign I really am and what kind of new sustainable “real” I can create in my actual 3D life.

    Thanks for your contributions Jasun doing what you do best.

  6. Thanks Kimberly

    I could have qualified that statement which you objected to by adding that the only way such problems (death, & systemic corruption of any kind) can ever be “solved” is once they cease to be seen as problems. This simply ain’t possible for the ego to do, IMHO.

    You certainly have a higher view of critics and mass audiences than I do (this is the same mob that made Gravity a massive success).

    Becoming more independent from the grid is great and I highly encourage it; I don’t see that as solving collective problems, simply as not adding energy to them (which happens when we try to fix them, also, IMO).

    Does it seem at odds to, on the one hand, view the article as “brilliant,” while on the other, suggest that it’s misguided enough to view “low vibration mind food” as worth writing a 10,000 word, favorable exegesis about . . .?


    • Thanks for reading Jasun and for your thoughtful reply-
      Guess it’s time for me to see the movie before blabbing on more here. Maybe my trepidation to see the movie has something to do with my dread to experience the reality as it is portrayed in the movie, or it’s just my fears of getting triggered, both of which are my issue to deal with. I care about what you are saying, and I care about what is going on in our world at the deepest of levels. I realize too that problems are never solved if they are serving as a 3D teaching mechanism (from the Thomas Campbell perspective).

      Clockwork Orange, David Lynch movies, The Road, No Country for Men, etc all of these cultural products/”art” can be great vehicles for representing Reality, a reality, an archetypal journey, a version of Hell on earth, the machinations of failed or corrupt systems-and yes they can be brilliantly analyzed by people like you-and still be vibrational junk for the soul. I felt like crap after seeing these movies, and I’m curious if this goes beyond me not wanting to face or look at what was being represented. I can’t say I’m the better for seeing them, you know? I can’t say these particular movies contributed to my life in a way that other movies have, although they are “great” movies. Is it possible for art and culture to do shadow/or look at what is going on in our world in a way that doesn’t feel like hell? Maybe not. Anyway I’m not a word person, so just feeling my way through this. Hayao Miyazaki deals with shadow and intense themes in a soulful way that leaves me stronger, so that’s the closest example I can name for now.

      I’ll see the movie, and keep you posted. Thanks for keeping the conversation going. Cheers.

    • I appreciate your devotion to a movie that’s been panned by (and may have gone over the heads of) the mainstream. My own writing about film emerged out of my outrage at the initially poor reception of another Ridley Scott movie, now considered a classic, ‘Blade Runner,’ then considered too ‘dark’ as a view of the future. However, I must respond to your views concerning the ‘agenda’ of Hollywood as an example of rather over-the-top artistic snobbery. I fully understand why you may see (particularly) American commercial cinema as serving the sole function of promoting and disguising the illusions that foster an empire of soporific indulgence. When exposed to the many counter views available in international and independent cinema I held this view for many years myself. I must point out, however, the dangers of approaching art with such a fixed political stance that it becomes impossible to view or appreciate anything that doesn’t conform strictly to one’s ideology.

      Art is a dialogue between creator and audience, with one responding to the other in a process of continual evolution. When art is approached as a tool for conveying ideology or propaganda it generally comes across as pedantic or pretentious. The movies are a spectacularly complex and collaborative art form that reflects the collective dreams in which we live and move and have our being. A truly successful film is one that enlists the skills of a community of artists working at a myriad of levels to deliver a focused and formal structure that both evokes and reflects the collective experience of an audience. It isn’t an unforgivable sin to simply entertain your audience or present to us a vision that appeals simply to our appreciation for formal integrity or to elicit some quality of emotional resonance.

      Having written and read many reviews of movies in the past and up to the present I’ve observed a trap into which many, if not most, movie critics fall into, probably as a result of having to watch too many movies that they don’t really enjoy. After a while it becomes drearily predictable which movies a particular critic will like and which they will not and it becomes almost pointless to read their reviews. They have fallen into the trap of ideology, which has the effect of freezing one’s point of view and thus making one blind to what passes before the eyes.

      A director like Ridley Scott, who is a preeminent ‘Hollywood’ director if there ever was one (He has directed countless commercials as well as feature films.), has conveyed his share of ideological subtext in many movies, but always the ‘message’ is subservient to the imperative to entertain. His many popular and successful films exhibit an ability to keep tight control of the formal elements that contribute to an engaging narrative. I’ve read several books by Cormac McCarthy and although they generally delve into the deep darkness of human nature, they are successful because the key to his art is his ability to tell an engaging yarn. The last Ridley Scott movie I saw was ‘Prometheus’ and in my view it was a beautiful mess that got mired in its own intellectual convolutions. I have yet to see ‘The Counselor’ but I certainly think it’s worth a view.

      As to my own preferences, i would cite a movie like ‘Gravity’, directed by Alfonso Cuaron as excellent largely because of its formal elements, which are echoed in his earlier film, ‘Children of Men’. Both movies are structured around a single pivotal sequence toward which every dramatic movement is focused and in which the entire ‘message’ of the film is contained. In ‘Gravity’ it’s the final moment when Sandra Bullock’s character stands up at the edge of the lake. In ‘Children of Men’ it’s the moment when the infant’s cry is heard and for an instant the battle between armies comes to a complete stop. Of course this may or may not be politically relevant. It’s merely beautiful.

      • Oh dear. I found gravity to be objectionable on almost every conceivable level – aesthetically, politically, and even “morally.” A total con-job. I turned away in disgust after about forty minutes.

          • “Taste is the great divider.” Pauline Kael.

            I watched Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, found it quite disappointing. Firstly, the title was inaccurate & transparent attempt to lure viewers in – the correct title for the film is The Ideologue’s Guide to Movies – there was nothing “perverse” about this film, except perhaps how Zizek framed it inside his own ideology without coming clean about it. He appears to be running for office.

            I would not say I approach movies from “a fixed political stance.” I have long been apolitical, and tho that may be changing, it’s the result of seeing the ways in which I have adopted an UNCONSCIOUS IDEOLOGY via cultural images from childhood and recognizing that “entertainment is instruction and instruction is ideology.”

            The American ideology of Gravity was painfully obvious to anyone but an American – even at the most superficial level, the fact the film never questioned what those all-American astronaut “heroes” were doing up there, merely took it as a given that it was at worst harmless, at best some philanthropic mission – ye gods, can viewers really be that naive?

            The film was inauthentic to its core; was that even really Bullock or Clooney or CGI versions of them?

            • You say that you are apolitical. Surely you are joking, as your stance on movies is almost EXCLUSIVELY and rather narrowly political. In opposing what you call the “American ideology” you merely define your own, which apparently also excludes things like CGI from the realm of the acceptable. As Zizek points out, just as you think you are stepping out of the realm of ideology is precisely when you enter it. Taste is not the issue here. You are an ideologue and you are talking politics. Not that I have any objection to viewing art through a political lens, but why then deny this is what you are doing?

              • you didn’t read my comment very closely it seems, so I can’t really answer your “charge” without either going along with your mis-perception or restating my previous comment. If we say that EVERYTHING is ideology, then there’s really nothing left to say is there, since all we ever do is pit ideologies against one another to see which is better.

                I know you are “wrong” about GRAVITY, that’s got to be enough for me. What interests me is that taste about movies IS an ideology (even when it doesn’t relate to ANY political position).

                The reason I said I am/was apolitical was that, taking the history-as-conspiracy view, I don’t recognize any intrinsic difference between political parties or ideologies, but see them as co-morbid symptoms of a single pathology. That doesn’t mean i don’t have an ideology based around honesty, transparency, and individual responsibility, I just don’t see that as compatible with any kind of political leaning.

                • The fact that Hollywood movies are consciously constructed US propaganda is non-negotiable. Not recognizing this just means someone hasn’t done the research or paid attention. However, there IS a spectrum – not all movies are engineered equal.

                  • Honesty, transparency and individual responsibility do not constitute an ideology. I’m not referring to allegiance to political parties or a particular political process. By ideology I mean ideation which is fixed, frozen and inflexible, “non-negotiable” as you might put it. Ideologies divide the world into rigid denominations of us and them. Your statements about “consciously constructed US propaganda” and “doing the research” and “history as conspiracy” suggest the usual (and very American) ideology of paranoia and victimization. To claim that your views somehow stand above politics is like the militant atheist who claims he isn’t religious when spending most of his waking moments obsessing about religion.

                    • I was talking about facts, which are non-negotiable – either you know them or you don’t.

                      Not to say that the facts can’t be fabricated, but that doesn’t appear to be your point. If you’re naive enough to see GRAVITY as a work of art, not propaganda, and can only counter that i see it as the latter due to my ideology, I’m sort of at a loss really. An unbridgeable gulf appears.

                    • I’ll rephrase this in a less dogmatic fashion: if you were presented with compelling evidence that GRAVITY was a CIA-shaped project and that Bullock, Clooney and Cuaron were all co-operating with US govt agendas in the making of the film, would it make any difference to your view of it?

  7. Don’t rush into anything! I wouldn’t recommend The Counselor to everyone, to my sister, niece, or mother (if she were alive), say.

    I don’t consider A Clockwork Orange to be either a good movie or a responsible one. I think it’s both poorly done and morally dubious. As Pauline Kael wrote, Kubrick “is catering to the thugs in the audience.”

    As for Lynch, which films are you referring to? Blue Velvet is a great film, and one that is filled with compassion and that deepened my understanding of my own darkness and helped me to accept it (I think). Wild at Heart was exploitative, and self-exploiting, trash. As an artist Lynch is unreliable.

    I loved NCFOM, couldn’t even sit through The Road.

    I haven’t heard of Hayao Miyazaki, but it sounds to me like the more visceral, immediate sort of filmmaking that’s typically American isn’t your “cup of tea,” as we say in England. I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to watch any movie anymore, unless they were already “hooked.” I am trying to quit myself (down to 2 a week!).

  8. Whenever The Counselor crosses my path on television Movie Channels, one or the other at some time–I don’t go to the movies and I don’t do NetFlix–I will now be informed from a number of angles, opinions, in depth analysis about theme and its connection to rampant nihilism, a vision rather than a nihilistic film, from you and Kimberley. For me more ways to look at a film came into play after you reviewed The MATRIX years and years ago. I took it in, the picture, more informed, what was being attempted, if not simply the mechanics of the matrix. I am most curious now about The Counselor.

  9. Very nice. i agree with everything you’ve written.
    2 points.
    A hollywood mainstream movie such as this clearly is, with top A listers, does not get green lit without it carrying to the public some of the agendas the “ruling” or “big brother” want to convey.
    Apart from a few chemtrail shots.. prominent in every big film including breaking bad etc, there were 2 messages .

    1- that the value of human life is becoming lower and lower. it’s a FEELING. and it runs through the entire film. and it’s meant to make people weak, less assured in their right to live, and give in to… death.
    btw, in his book, the road, the same thing. Opra does not recommend just any book.. it’s not an accident it became so big.

    2- Cameron diaz’s character, just at the ending monolog, explains how the “softness” of mankind have brought the world to it’s sorry state, and warns of a huge carnage that is eminent. the head mexican bad guy also explains how it (death) is already decided. this parallel world..

    to me that felt like an inside joke.. warning. completely unnecessary in term of the plot.

    i could be wrong.. but that’s how i see it.

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