Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cormac McCarthy can stuff it

I have never read a Cormac McCarthy novel.

But from the films I've seen of his work, I'm tired of hearing people speak about him in such hushed and reverent tones.

He could be the most talented wordsmith to string phrases together since Mark Twain, but his stories leave me cold, and not in a way that nourishes me.

The first McCarthy adaptation I saw was the disastrous 2000 film All the Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. I didn't know who McCarthy was at the time, though I do remember hearing his name discussed -- to me he was just some novelist I had never heard of. Even if I had been inclined to blame McCarthy for the failure of the movie, I probably wouldn't have. All the talk was that the version Thornton wanted to make was entirely butchered by the studio, leaving the final movie without crucial passages that would have contextualized key parts of the narrative. I just wrote it off as one of those movies that never stood a chance.

The first movie I was conscious of being an adaptation of his work was the 2007 best picture winner, No Country for Old Men. I was with the movie big time for its first half, when it was following the beats of a good Coen crime thriller, with just enough narrative eccentricity thrown in to make it interesting. But then the Coens began engaging in an intentional campaign to frustrate us, leaving key confrontations and plot developments to occur off-screen, and petering out into an unsatisfying non-ending. (Don't worry if you disagree; you would obviously not be alone.) When I learned that this was very faithful to the way things go down in McCarthy's novel, I began to grow skeptical of the man.

Next up was The Road in 2009, which remains my favorite movie based on McCarthy's work. But I have to qualify that pretty significantly. First, just as an aside, I'll say that I believe I confused this novel with another one, since I got it into my head that it took place just after the Civil War, not in an apocalyptic future like the movie. That of course turned out to be wrong. As this was director John Hillcoat's follow-up to The Proposition, which I liked very much, and as post-apocalypse movies have always interested me (and were not quite as plentiful six years ago), I was super excited to see The Road. The only way to describe my reaction to the movie, then, was disappointment. I recognize it as a good movie, but it was bad bleak (like The Rover) rather than good bleak (like Children of Men). The Rover would not have been an available reference to me at the time, but it is now.

Then last night I saw The Counselor. The Counselor is not based on a McCarthy novel. Instead, it's a McCarthy original screenplay. What that does that's particularly instructive is it prevents us from blaming any intermediary for mucking up McCarthy's vision. Yeah, Ridley Scott had some say in why The Counselor was so bad, but those are McCarthy's words, unmolested and unfettered. Indeed, The Counselor is a base, disquieting affair, but I hesitate to use those words to describe it, as they make it sound more interesting than it actually is. I love being disquieted by a movie, but as with bleakness (which is also on plentiful display here), there are good and bad ways of being disquieted. McCarthy's way involves exclusively unlikable characters passively navigating a simple plot that's difficult to follow (how's that for a contradiction) because it's so clumsily executed and because the dialogue is overwritten to the point of preventing you from following it. What's more, the things that were supposed to be shocking about this movie ended up boring me. (And were, in fact, the reasons I watched it in the first place, despite the negative reviews.) The story is so muddled, in fact, that I had to consult the plot synopsis on wikipedia twice while the movie was still running, just to give myself the hope of possibly getting something out of the parts I had not yet seen. No such luck.

With these four McCarthy cinematic works as my evidence, I have decided the man is a one-trick pony. His every work is devoted to the idea that people are evil to their core, and any exception to this is an aberration, not a cause for hope. Oh, there may be different degrees of evil. Some people may just make choices that are contradictory to their nature because they sense an opportunity to profit. Others are naturally venal, but not openly harmful to people. And then there are just the anarchists, who seem to enact the most extreme forms of violence against others for the pure pleasure of it, and show nary an ounce of mercy. They comprise a disturbingly large percentage of McCarthy characters.

But everyone is compromised in some way or another, and there's no chance they are going to come to good ends. I suppose there's a certain moral rectitude to the idea that bad people come to bad ends, but then there are all those bad people in McCarthy's films who never get punished for what they've done, or whose punishment comes in truly unrecognizable forms. Where's the optimism?

Maybe I like The Road the best because it does end with just a hint of hope for the future. If I recall correctly (SPOILER ALERT), the boy's father dies, but he takes up with new guardians who seem to give him the distant hope of a new and enduring family unit. Of course, some of that is speculation, and The Road isn't so rosy as to guarantee us a positive outlook for the character. But it does not end on the purely bleak note of his other films. Maybe it's just that if you are going to put the world through an apocalypse, you have already amply demonstrated your pessimism, and are obliged to give us some possible ray of sunshine at the end.

Conversely, The Counselor is probably his bleakest. But it comes by that distinction cheaply, as it doesn't develop any of its characters enough for us to appreciate what's happening to them or why it's happening. These characters are basically cyphers, which leaves their ultimate position in McCarthy's moral universe totally arbitrary.

The only thing worse than the point McCarthy is repeatedly trying to make is having no point at all.

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