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.