Actions produce 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?
The Counselor, written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, revolves around a lawyer who tries to make a one-time investment in a drug trade, believing that he can reap immense profits to fund his marriage to his fiancée, Laura. However, the girlfriend of one of the counselor’s partners, Malkina, undermines the deal in order to make money for herself, and the cartel retaliates by killing Laura and the counselor’s partners.
To begin by way of reckless oversimplification, the film initially seems to be a meditation on the consequences of participation in evil, and presents two sets of characters: one group who believe every past choice, including the choice to sin, leads to consequences one cannot escape but must embrace, and another group who believe they are immune to the consequences of their sins. At the end of the film, the characters who have embraced their sins seem to have won, while the others are dead or otherwise devastated. This has led more than a few critics to see the film as nihilistic, and “utterly disrespectful to Catholics and the sacrament of Confession to boot,” which isn’t quite fair, because the apparently triumphant characters are not immune from regret, and the middle road the film presents between the importance of the consequences of sin and those consequences not having the final word is, in fact, the sacrament of Confession.
“…there is no choosing. There’s only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.”
The character who expounds most explicitly on the idea that the past is inescapably determinative of everything that follows is a jefe the counselor contacts. The jefe tells the counselor that the world you live in is one you have created by the choices you have made, whether or not you are aware that these choices will shape your entire world. Other choices would lead to worlds you can now no longer reach. The jefe ties this especially to grief, in that one who grieves the consequences of his decisions might want to be able to go back and make a different decision, but this is no longer possible.
The Counselor associates the jefe’s theory with sin in the character of Malkina. Malkina is very much aware of the presence of sin; she interrogates Laura about how Laura goes to Confession, and whether Laura is truly contrite for the sins she confesses; Laura does not, but instead uses Confession as a way to manipulate God and do what she wants without facing spiritual consequences instead of seeking to be truly virtuous. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Malkina visits a confessional, where she mocks the priest with lurid stories of debauchery, claiming her sins are unforgivable. Malkina, in line with the jefe, says she refuses to miss things that are gone, because she thinks it wrong to wish that things return. Things left in the past are irretrievable. Malkina is yet another example of what Matthew Boudway discusses, which is how McCarthy’s villains understand the world by
constructing abstract theories that will account for everyone’s past, as well as everyone’s future. Not incidentally, these comprehensive theories have the effect of absolving the villains of any responsibility for their deeds. McCarthy’s fiction suggests that those who insist on sating their hunger for meaning in this world often end up feeding on death—their own or that of others. To live honorably is to learn to tolerate the hunger, accepting whatever crumbs of meaning come your way. These won’t satisfy, but they’re sufficient.
Malkina’s theory is that the past is irretrievable and unchangeable, and so not only should she not pine for people she has lost, but she cannot return to her old choices and make new ones. For her, the die has been cast, and she must not only accept, but embrace the consequences of her choices. Part of this involves her belief that her pet cheetahs are beautiful because there is no distinction between what they are and what they do. By combining her belief in a world determined by her past choices with her belief that there should be no distinction between what one does and what one is, she can conclude that she is absolved of responsibility for her actions, because if she does evil she is simply acting according to what she is, which is already determined and which she cannot change. Her past actions have made her into who she is now, and it is necessary to act in accordance with that being. Therefore, in a scene wrongly accused of having “no dramatic payoff,” she feels she can mock the confessional, where penitents go to erase some of the spiritual consequences of their past actions, and to become something that they are not: holy. From her perspective, Confession is a rejection of the reality of the past and what people have become due to their actions. And because the only person to whom she speaks about Confession, Laura, is a hypocrite, it would be hard to blame an honest person for thinking of Confession in that way.
In the end, Malkina’s wealth lies in diamonds, which a jeweller describes as being defined by their flaws. For a person, this flaw may be a past sin for which they do not believe they can find absolution, and so which comes to consume their being. Compare: like the souls in Dante’s Inferno, who become affixed in their sin, committing and becoming their sin for all of eternity, Malkina, who has done evil and understands it to be evil, refuses to try to make amends and instead lets her nature become corrupted, and defines herself by her flaw, though she might not understand it as such.
“…a certain remove from the realities of life”
On the other hand, there are several characters who believe that they can escape the consequences of their sins, or even that there will be no consequences. Most obviously, the counselor himself is always being asked if he is entirely sure he wants to be involved in a dangerous drug trade, and participates anyways, believing nothing particularly unpleasant could possibly happen. His partner Westray boasts he can disappear easily if his past comes to haunt him. Laura believes that a legalistically insincere confession allows her to sin with abandon, and doesn’t want to know the price her fiancé paid for her engagement ring; she does not want to know what it will cost her. Some critics call Laura “the most innocent character in the story,” or the story’s pure “moral center,” but this is only true if we equate innocence and naïveté; her presumption and exploitation of Confession make her at least as guilty as any other character. However, the film makes it abundantly clear that these characters are deceived; Westray and Laura are killed for their involvement, and the counselor loses his fiancée.
This short-sightedness doesn’t mean that Malkina and the jefe are correct to embrace the consequences of their evil choices. Malkina fails to live up to her belief that one shouldn’t miss that which is gone; at the end of the film, she misses her pet cheetahs, which have been lost, and she doesn’t seem to notice the contradiction. The total rejection of regret is unsustainable. Grief or contrition of some sort is inevitable, and so Malkina’s belief rejects reality and her own experience just as much as she might think a penitent rejects reality. Even though Malkina seems to have won, and to have overcome every obstacle in her path with relative ease, she still succumbs to a more powerful force, regret, and doesn’t realize it.
“What about Confession?”
The Counselor offers Confession as something that might deal with this more powerful force while acknowledging the consequences of past sin. Though the jefe asserts that grief is valueless, and can be bought with it, in Confession, a penitent can offer grief and contrition in exchange for absolution. To be crassly capitalistic, Confession means that grief does have exchange value, refuting the jefe. With absolution, there is the hope that what one does is not simply what one is; that one is not defined by one’s flaws and sins. Furthermore, in Confession, a penitent takes responsibility for one’s actions in a way that Malkina rejects doing, and this responsibility is something The Counselor valorises.
The true heroes of The Counselor are the minor characters who do not deceive themselves about their participation in evil or their vulnerability to its consequences. The first is the priest to whom Malkina speaks in the confessional; when he realizes that she is only present to mock him, he leaves. He does not participate in her sacrilege. He is a foil to Laura, in that he believes in the efficacy of Confession, but does not use it as a way of testing God or sin. As Jeffrey Overstreet says, “To his credit, the priest gets up and walks away. He refuses to participate in such exhibitionism, such lurid and inappropriate sensationalism,” and because of this, Overstreet states that McCarthy sympathizes with the priest. Unlike the counselor, who thinks he can just dip a toe into the pool of criminality, the priest understands that he cannot safely participate in evil at all, and this wisdom elevates him above every major character.
The second is the woman who seduces Westray in order to give Malkina his financial information. When she realizes Malkina intends to have Westray killed, she refuses to accept Malkina’s money. Westray is still marked for death, due to his reckless sin, which the woman cannot absolve or neuter, but she need not be marked for the same fate due to her own recklessness. She has participated in evil, but instead of trying to minimise her participation while maximising her profit, like the counselor, she chooses to remove herself. The priest and the woman take responsibility for their actions (and their souls) in a way that the major characters do not. Even if these characters do not seem to “win,” or to defeat the villains, they are undeceived about themselves and their fates and responsible in a way that the other characters, including the villains, are not. To return to Boudway’s commentary, the priest and the women may hunger for meaning and for a life without evil, but they accept the crumbs of simply refusing to participate in the evil around them, which Boudway identifies as honourable, unlike Malkina who feasts on those around her.
“I would urge you to see the truth of the situation you’re in, Counselor.”
The Counselor, as is often noted, is a film about self-deception, and while many critics catch the counselor’s obvious self-deception, Malkina’s obliviousness tends to go unnoted. McCarthy might give her, the diamond dealer, and the jefe some of his most memorable lines, but that doesn’t mean the film thinks they’re right. As Boudway says, McCarthy is
suspicious of homiletic novels: he couldn’t give his heroes all the best lines without appearing to preach to the reader, something he scrupulously avoids. In narrative terms, McCarthy’s novels couldn’t be clearer, but in moral terms they are often highly ambiguous. Sometimes his characters appear blind to the ambiguity—the author signals it over their heads to the reader.
And here is an instance where McCarthy signals above Malkina’s head, and above the heads of the viewers who think that The Counselor baldly states its themes. In the haunting last line of the film, Malkina says that she’s “famished”; she has defeated her enemies and reaped riches, but she is not satisfied. She has not fed on anything nourishing, but only death, whereas the priest and the woman can sleep at night, knowing that though they might have hurt themselves in worldly terms, they can be satisfied with their moral actions. She is blind to this ambiguity, and doesn’t realize that she has succumbed to regret and her belief that she can triumph by embracing her evil is unrealistic.
Alissa Wilkinson sums up the film quite well:
…there is still something very important at the heart of this film, and at the heart of all of McCarthy’s work. This world is broken, broken beyond repair. Christians believe that after history’s tragedies end, hope will be fulfilled—but our too-common mistake is to skip over the tragedy as fast as possible in our eagerness to get to the “redemption” part… Anyone who has experienced genuine, senseless tragedy is familiar with the glib statements people make to smooth things over and keep on living.
But we need to experience grief, and we ought to grieve…
Near the film’s end, we watch the Counselor gradually realize the full extent of the loss that evil is inflicting on him, and for a moment, we believe it’s because of his wrongdoing. Certainly, the penalty outweighs the crime—the brutality is not excusable—but he still did a bad thing. He deserves to pay.
But then The Counselor becomes a McCarthy story, not a simple morality tale: he walks out into the street and right into the middle of a vigil that a number of the city’s weeping residents are holding in memory of their own lost loved ones. He wanders through their midst with a look of wonder. It’s Ellis’s point in No Country: Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. The Counselor is paying for his sins, but plenty of people lose their loved ones brutally without having engaged in illegal drug trafficking. Correlation does not imply causation. Evil is in us, but also bigger than us.
So that is why we need Cormac McCarthy alongside Victor Hugo and Shakespeare and Dickens: he reminds us (with a particularly American sensibility) that this world is broken and tragic and not fair, and that pushing past that fact too fast is an error we can’t afford to make, for the good of our souls. Even if you believe in a final restoration, you need to feel why it’s necessary.
Blessed, after all, are those who mourn.
Malkina cannot win control by embracing her sin because, at the end of the day, while she has responsibility for her sin, she cannot control evil; it is larger than her, like the sun that rises and the rain that falls on the evil and the good alike. Like the Counselor, her mistake is to believe she is the master of evil, while it remains an inscrutable suffering to be mourned and absolved. Instead of embracing a corrupt past, or pretending it doesn’t matter, they must mourn it.