In the Palm of the Hand — Cormac McCarthy’s Killing Machines

November 10, 2013 | by Guy Zimmerman

A friend tells me about the formatting – how with his script for The Counselor, the novelist Cormac McCarthyisn’t even bothering with standard screenplay conventions anymore. Obtaining a copy I see that, sure enough, McCarthy has stripped away all the awkward visual notations that make screenplays so tedious to read. He opts instead for a minimalist layout, with a central column for dialogue, and block-like paragraphs for scene descriptions delivered with a minimum of camera notation. On the page the script looks almost like a Doric column – stark and Classical – which is appropriate given the tale’s astringent stoicism.

The Counselor is also perhaps the first screenplay written about a new device for killing ones enemies. I’m talking about the nifty bolito, a palm-sized, battery-powered motor with a looping wire attached to it that, once dropped over someone’s head, tightens inexorably around the neck until it severs the carotid artery with a spray of blood, perhaps even taking off the entire head as it grinds down toward a circumference of zero. Those familiar with McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men might point out that it too featured innovative assassination techniques — Anton Chighur’s pneumatic cow-killing contraption. In The Counselor, however, the bolito provides the central image of the film, resonating powerfully, on one level or another, in almost every scene. Parodying the businessman’s tie, the bolito makes itself known most obviously in the ultimate beheadings of three characters. But the ring of global finance in the film also operates in a way analogous to the bolito – as a murderous and inexorable engine, ratcheting downwards by way of the mechanisms of debt and debt-related social and criminal violence. The loop of the bolito is echoed too in the engagement ring the Counselor (he is never named) buys in Amsterdam and brings back home to El Paso, presenting it to his girlfriend, Laura. The bolito appears in the looping path of “the traveler,” a dead body packed into a barrel along with bricks of cocaine in a macabre joke played among drug dealers. And Bolito-like loops even characterize the scenic structure of the film – it is composed almost entirely of two person scenes, loops that close around a nullity of greed: all is transactional here.

The diamond is another image McCarthy uses in The Counselorin ways closely related to the recursive death loop of the bolito. In a marvelous cameo early in the film, the German actor Bruno Ganz appears as a Hasidic diamond merchant in Amsterdam. Giving the Counselor a quick primer in how to gauge the value of a stone, this Dealer (he is never named) explains that anything you can say to describe a gem is in the nature of a flaw — the perfect diamond would be imperceptible, composed “entirely of light.” McCarthy’s thinking is subtle. If the ring is a version of the bolito, the diamond is the head that gets decapitated. At issue here is the relationship between the “diamond” of abstract thought and the symbolic Other of money, which powers the market economy, but with some very unpleasant hidden costs.

The Counselorcloses with a sequence in which the baroque structures of global capital flows are “clipped” in the form of a laptop taken from a principle character as he is being decapitated by a bolito. In the end, the villainous Malkina (played by Cameron Diaz), gets the briefcase with the computer – and the diamonds she can carry in the palm of her hand, as light and portable as the lethal bolito. Comparing notes with a wealthy Swiss banker, she laments the plight of humanity as we confront the tightening loop of our collective dysfunctions – our violence and our greed – in language calibrated to chill contemporary audiences. Malkina is the latest incarnation of the evil demiurges who figure in many of McCarthy’s previous novels – beings like Anton Chigurh or Judge Holden of Blood Meridian, for example, who reign over the physical world with bloodshed and terror. With her feline tattoos and her pet cheetahs, Malkina is a becoming-predator, as if she had given up on our fatally confused, dishonest species in favor of animals and their immediate engagement with the world of experience.

What is McCarthy trying to tell us? At the core of The Counselor we are given a long disquisition by a drug lord (“Jefe” played by Ruben Blades) delivered via telephone. The Counselor has come to Mexico in hopes of rescuing his fiancée, and the phone call is as close as he will get. The drug lord is direct, and elegant in his thinking about fate and human agency. He explains to the counselor that with our actions we give birth to worlds, realities that run their course and then subside. The imagery is Greek in its stoicism, but also Eastern. Using the word karma requires disclaiming the way it has been deployed by elites in various highly stratified Asian societies to perpetuate exploitative social systems, but karma (Moira, is the Greek version) is what McCarthy is looking at. A Buddhist teacher once conveyed the subtleties of karma by describing how the thief, through the act of stealing, comes to know the world to be a place where people cannot be trusted. In such a world it makes senseto steal, and so it is very likely the thief will steal again…and again. The feedback loop between our actions and the world we experience resembles the bolito in its mechanical inexorability. This view of the inseparability of acting and knowing fatally complicates the free-will-versus-determinism binary that has often preoccupied ethical thinking in the West. Denying our intimate connection to the world, we have become blind to the suicidal dimension of our ways of living…and we now feel the bolito beginning to tighten.

How to assess Ridley Scott’swork as a director here? Meh. The casting is hit or miss. Perhaps the most damaging flaw is the lack of chemistry between Fassbender’s Counselor and Penelope Cruz’s Laura. There are other problems, large and small. The alterations made to the script in the process of filming are respectul, but inevitably they blunt the sharp edges of McCarthy’s implacable vision. The filmmaking is not great, in other words, but why harp on the negative? The filmmaking of No Countrywasn’t great either, and it doesn’t matter in the same way – both films are about the writing. McCarthy has earned a degree of credibility that somehow forces everyone involved to do their utmost not to screw things up. Where ego still exerts itself to weaken the work we have the sense it is unconscious, and a source of embarrassment – everyone is on their best behavior. With his seriousness of purpose, his expansive yet understated vision, and his literary chops, McCarthy redeems the project of dramatic realism in an age where it was been deployed for the most banal and artistically indefensible purposes. Despite all the film’s perceptible flaws, McCarthy’s deep reflections and resonances linger in disquieting ways long after we leave the theater, haunting us like the prophesies of half-remembered dreams. I, for one, have no problem making a trip to the multiplex for that.


Tagged With: bolito, Cormac McCarthy, Guy Zimmerman, No Country for Old Men, Ridley Scott, The Counselor


  • nathan says: 
November 11, 2013 at 5:31 pmGreat piece…. looking forward to seeing it. Could you post a snap of a page of the script, so we can see exactly what you’re referring to in terms of the formatting?

  • Tom Lane says: 
November 11, 2013 at 5:31 pmGuy– Well, I had more or less decided not to see this based on the wildly divergent reviews. But maybe on your recommendation I’ll give it a shot…if it’s still around in my area. I’m second to none in my admiration of McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, the greatest 20th century novel in the Melville mold. The Road was riveting, but I decided that the film version was skipable. And even Homer nods…just saw a production of McCarthy’s play Sunrise Limited last Saturday and was bored almost into insensibility. In short, I’m not quite sure what to make of McCarthy’s oeuvre as a whole…varies vastly in quality in my experience. Tom Lane

  • Guy Zimmerman says: 
November 11, 2013 at 6:25 pmExecution has a lot to do with it, Tom. With the right director and cast, etc. Sunset Limited could be pretty riveting, I would imagine. The director of The Road is the guy who filmed that overblown Nick Cave script a while back and my interest instantly went South. The novel itself is very strong. I agree, however, that Blood Meridian is the peak.

  • H says: 
November 12, 2013 at 5:27 amIf only the movie is as good as your view into the screenplay… You really make a delicious meal of it – good food for thought and inspiration.

  • Franklin Zimmerman says: 
November 12, 2013 at 7:35 amMost thought provoking, Guy. We will walk up the hill to our multiplex to see it. Franklin and Elena

  • Bob Gould says: 
November 12, 2013 at 12:02 pmI have the reviewers take on the movie is a 360 degree view of the entire process of writing , directing and acting for film. The caliber of this review should place it in the “New Yorker” not here.

  • ambra blu says: 
February 1, 2014 at 5:15 ami agree with 90% of whats been written here. except no country for old men is a directorial masterpiece.. well crafted and helmed, ncfom is directing for the advanced, stripped down to the basics, yet complex in its faux simplicity and gritty realism. thats the reason it feels not like a cartoon (like the majority of coens’ movies), but like a movie about people made of flesh and blood.
the counselor took off from where ncfom left off, the sailing for byzantium ruminations at the end of the movie. but the counselor comes off as heavy handed, a bit awkward and a bit verbose for its own good. it makes for a better read than watch
ps: the road was a masterpiece, was the lawless bored me to death. over inflated, lack of chemistry, lack of verosimilty …tom hardy aint no cowboy

  • ambra blu says: 
February 1, 2014 at 5:17 amand yes its a good review

  • Mike says: 
February 15, 2014 at 9:19 pmAlthough not the same, a similar device to “bolito” was referenced in 2009 movie Law Aiding Citizen. There, during a secret meeting between DA (Bruce McGill), assistand DA (Jamie Foxx) and a CIA operative (Michael Kelly) the CIA op tells a story about device developed by the main character – Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler). The device, a neck tie with kevlar string was used to assasinate a leader of terrorist group. Although no clear decription as to its function was given, it was very similar to the so-called “bolito.”
  • Now, I agree the device made pretty huge impact on the story but as to its reality, I’ll say it is unlikely. The amount of torque you would have to develop would have to be pretty impressive and that is very unlikely with few AA batteries (or similar). It is a devious idea for sure but uless they used some power source the size of batteries used in cordless drills, the batteries just couldn’t handle it. Regardless, I give the writer credit for the twisted imagination.

  • Justin says: 
May 31, 2014 at 8:31 amIt’s refreshing to read reviews where the critic can think. Good job on this.

  • actuarialpunk says: 
July 16, 2014 at 11:45 pmThe ending could have been better if Malkina, after stealing the briefcase and killing what’s his name(lol), is informed by the Swiss banker that the $20 million was used to buy an annuity two years previously.

Alexandra Buchanan says: 
September 22, 2014 at 8:41 amI enjoyed this excellent well thought out discursive review by Guy Zimmerman.
This is a film that requires more than a casual viewing to absorb the many ideas and themes presented therein.
A brave performance from Cameron Diaz as the sociopath whore/fiend, hopefully her character’s world also disintegrates into pain and nothingness in some near future time.
It is difficult to like any of these characters, except perhaps the young con artist who takes Brad Pitts character – she at least looks into the abyss and then backs away.
A very interesting film.