No Country for Greedy Men: Cormac McCarthy, Screenwriter

October 31, 2013 | 5 books mentioned 5 8 min read

coverCormac McCarthy can now add “screenwriter” to his glittering resume. The Counselor, the decorated novelist’s first produced screenplay, is in theaters now. It’s directed by Ridley Scott and stars Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt. And it’s a mindfuck.

One reviewer offered this assessment of the screenplay: “McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life.” I can think of no higher compliment for a screenwriter. I say that as someone who has written a handful of (unproduced) screenplays that more or less hewed to the template found throughout the groaning shelf of books on How To Write a Screenplay. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, for instance, Michael Hauge urges writers to follow the conventional three-act format: “The goal of act one is to establish the setting, character, situation and outer motivation for the hero. The goal of act two is to build the action, suspense, pace, humor, character development, and character revelation. The goal of act three is to resolve everything from both your hero’s inner and outer journey.”

coverMcCarthy, to his great credit, is having none of it. He doesn’t so much break the rules as he ignores them and makes his own. This daring strategy, when harnessed to a talent as prodigious as McCarthy’s, results in that rare thing called originality, and it puts him in the company of such sui generis screenwriters as Orson Welles, Robert Towne, and Charlie KaufmanThe Counselor follows no three-act road map or even the familiar conventions of character development, narrative arc, character motivation, and the rest of it. What it offers, instead, is an irresistible story that’s coheres slowly through the seamless ratcheting of tension. The key to this story’s success, I think, is that McCarthy is working with something far more slippery and rewarding than mere suspense. He’s working with dread — that is, with the audience’s dawning unease that there is genuine evil afoot here and these characters will come to ends that can only be bad.

This dread is injected early and often, in subtle ways — for instance, when the unnamed title character (Fassbender) tells his fiancée Laura (Cruz), “I intend to love you until I die.”

coverThe counselor and Laura live in familiar McCarthy territory, the Tex-Mex border, the setting for his novel No Country for Old Men. It’s a place where sweet nothings can sound like a death sentence, where the drugs flow one way and the blood flows wherever and whenever it is made to. Without telling Laura, the counselor has gotten in on a cocaine deal run by one of his clients, the flamboyant nightclub owner Reiner (Bardem), who frolics in his desert compound with beautiful people and his jaded hottie du jour, Malkina (an astonishingly good Diaz, who gives new meaning to the word meretricious with her two pet cheetahs and her spray on-dresses, six-inch stilettos, silver fingernails, and rings the size of meteorites). Also in on the coke deal is another world-wise customer named Westray (Pitt), who offers the counselor some insights into the world he is getting himself — and his fiancée — into. None of it is pretty.

What could have been just another drug-fuelled bloodbath turns into something much more compelling in McCarthy’s hands: an examination of how a man’s choices become his fate, because they start out inevitable and then become irreversible and finally become lethal. Especially when you choose to play with a Mexican cartel.

covercoverIt helps that the movie is directed by Ridley Scott, who has shown that he has a deft feel for writers who write literature and serious journalism, as opposed to screenwriters who pump out the formulaic dreck that winds up on the vast majority of movie screens. Two obvious examples are Blade Runner, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and American Gangster, based on a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson. Both movies excel because they spring from rich source material and go far beyond slavish imitation of that material.

Scott’s natural gifts may have gotten a boost in the case of The Counselor because the script reads more like fiction than a conventional screenplay. One scene illustrates the point especially well. In it, a man goes about laying an ambush for a motorcyclist who is involved, in ways that are not quite clear, in the shipment of the cocaine across the border:

A LARGE MOTORCYCLE store in the city. A man enters and stands looking. He crosses to where a Kawasaki ZX-12R motorcycle is circling slowly on a motorized dais. The dais is marked off with a blue velvet rope and the man approaches and stands looking at the bike for a moment, then unhooks the rope and lets it fall to the floor and mounts the dais and stands circling with it. A clerk talking to a customer nearby sees him. The clerk comes over to the dais. The man has taken a steel tape measure from his coat pocket and is measuring the height of the Kawasaki at the handlebars.

(There’s one telling difference between the screenplay and what winds up on the screen. In the finished movie, the clerk approaches the man with the measuring tape and asks, “Can I help you?”  The man replies, “Nope.” That simple “Nope” carries a ton of freight, and it strikes me as an improvement on McCarthy’s original.) The scene continues:

BORDER CITY. EVENING. An outdoor café adjoining a parking lot. Metal chairs and tables. Traffic. A Mexican man is sitting at one of the tables with a cup of coffee before him and a newspaper. The young man in green pulls up on the Kawasaki ZX-12R. He takes off the gloves and the helmet and puts the gloves inside the helmet and steps off the bike and walks to where the man is sitting and kicks back a chair and sits down.

THE MAN AT THE table rises and goes, leaving the paper on the table. The kid sits at the table and opens the newspaper and reads.

THE KID RAKES AN object from under the paper into his helmet and puts down the paper and stands and puts the helmet under his arm and crosses the plaza to his bike and puts his foot over the bike and starts it and pulls his gloves from the helmet and lays them on the tank in front of him and pulls on the helmet and fastens the strap and then pulls on the gloves and kicks back the stand and pulls away into the traffic.

NIGHT. TWO-LANE blacktop road through the high desert. A car passes and the lights recede down the long straight and fade out. A man walks out from the scrub cedars that line the road and stands in the middle of the road and lights a cigarette. He is carrying a roll of thin braided wire over one shoulder. He continues across the road to the fence. A tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fence posts and at the top—some twenty feet off the ground—is a floodlight. The man pushes the button on a small plastic sending unit and the light comes on, flooding the road and the man’s face. He turns it off and walks down the fence line a good hundred yards to the corner of the fence and here he drops the coil of wire to the ground and takes a flashlight from his back pocket and puts it in his teeth and takes a pair of leather gloves from his belt and puts them on. Then he loops the wire around the corner post and pulls the end of the wire through the loop and wraps it about six times around the wire itself and tucks the end several times inside the loop and then takes the wire in both hands and hauls it as tight as he can get it. Then he takes the coil of wire and crosses the road, letting out the wire behind him. In the cedars on the far side, a flatbed truck is parked with the bed of the truck facing the road. There is an iron pipe at the right rear of the truck bed mounted vertically in a pair of collars so that it can slide up and down and the man threads the wire through a hole in the pipe and pulls it taut and stops it from sliding back by clamping the wire with a pair of vise grips. Then he walks back out to the road and takes a tape measure from his belt and measures the height of the wire from the road surface. He goes back to the truck and lowers the iron pipe in its collars and clamps it in place again with a threaded lever that he turns by hand against the vertical rod. He goes out to the road and measures the wire again and comes back and wraps the end of the wire through a heavy three-inch iron ring and walks to the front of the truck, where he pulls the wire taut and wraps it around itself to secure the ring at the end of the wire and then pulls the ring over a hook mounted in the side rail of the truck bed. He stands looking at it. He strums the wire with his fingers. It gives off a deep resonant note. He unhooks the ring and walks the wire to the rear of the truck until it lies slack on the ground and in the road. He lays the ring on the truck bed and goes around and takes a walkie-talkie from a work bag in the cab of the truck and stands in the open door of the truck, listening. He checks his watch by the dome light in the cab.

HE TURNS OFF the walkie-talkie and takes the cigarette from his mouth and grinds it into the dirt and shuts the door of the truck. He looks at his watch. Very thin in the distance we can hear the high-pitched scream of the Kawasaki bike flat out at eleven thousand r.p.m.

SHOT OF THE green rider bent low over the bike at a hundred and ninety miles an hour. Suddenly, the floodlight comes on and he raises up and turns his head to look at it.

THE TRUCK. THE desert is suddenly lit to the north of the wire man and he takes the ring and carries it forward and pulls it over the hook. The wire hums.

SHOT OF THE green rider with his face turned back to the floodlight, which is now behind him. Suddenly, his head zips away and, in the helmet, goes bouncing down the highway behind the bike. The bike continues on, the motor slows and dies to silence, and in the distance we see a long slither of sparks recede into the dark.

THE TRUCK. THE man clips the wire at the ring with a pair of wire cutters and the wire zips away. He walks out to the road with the walkie-talkie. In the road, he shines the light down the blacktop and then walks down the roadside ditch until he comes to the helmet.

HE PUTS AWAY the walkie-talkie and bends over and picks up the helmet. It is surprisingly heavy. He goes back to the truck and opens the cab door on the driver’s side and puts the helmet on the floor and shuts the door and goes out to the road and crosses to the fence, where he cuts the wire free from the fence post and begins to wind it up as he walks, passing the wire over his elbow at each turn to make a coil. He stows the wire in a toolbox under the bed of the truck and gets in the truck and starts it and turns on the lights and drives out into the road.

(Here Scott makes another small but telling change. In the finished film, the ambusher doesn’t put the helmet in the truck; he shakes the helmet until the head falls out, making a wet whap when it hits the pavement. Then he removes the vital object from inside the helmet, pockets it, and drives away. Much better.)

The key to the success of this scene is the way McCarthy so deliberately builds the dread, then executes the payoff (and the motorcyclist) in the wink of an eye. The whole movie is like that — the slow-cooked accretion of dread, leading to a flash of violence. And then, almost always, someone is dead.

McCarthy’s script is not flawless. Some of the dialog has a high tin content. As sleazy Westray, Brad Pitt, looking perfect for the role with a slight pot belly, puffy cheeks and stringy hair, says things like “You don’t know someone till you know what they want” and “I’ve seen it all and it’s all shit.” The counselor woos Laura with: “You are a glory. As in glorious. You are a glorious woman.” And finally, Malkina, who proves to be the most dangerous one in this cage full of animals, theorizes that predators in the wild are pure because they are what they do, while we humans have fallen from their state of pure grace: “It is our faintness of heart that has driven us to ruin.”

Listening to Cameron Diaz utter a few lines like that goes a long way, but these missteps are small. The movie is huge, largely because the man who wrote the screenplay is a giant and he has never read a screenwriting manual in his life.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. Wow, what a lot of ideas are popping up for me after reading this article (and interfering with the decoration of the Official Moe Murph Haunted Efficiency Apartment).

    Is there a false dichotomy at work here? I’m a big fan of James Frey’s book “How To Write a Damn Good Novel.” Frey is a stickler for the same items (character development, narrative arc, character motivation) that aren’t getting too much love here. Frey is careful, however (even beginning his book with a caveat) that his focus is on dramatic storytelling, and his advice is to be taken in that context. He contrasts the novels he uses for examples in his own “how to’ book with other types of novels (e.g., “Mrs. Dalloway” – Virginia Woolf). Frey makes no value judgment. He never implies that the creative choice to work within one type of structure or another has any bearing on the ultimate quality of the work. I see no reason a classically structured piece (movie, novel, whatever) is any more likely to be “formulaic dreck” than an “experimental” piece will be “unstructured and chaotic dreck.” Dreck is dreck! As for the three-act format, why is its “conventionality” necessarily a problem? Again, isn’t it just one of many choices from the writer’s toolbox of tricks?

    In his review of “The Counselor” Mr. Morris mentions the “audience’s dawning unease that there is genuine evil afoot here….” Yes, but what about the classically structured “Lolita?” (as mentioned by James Frey, credit to him). I can think of no more evil character than the malevolent Quilty. And again “an irresistible story that coheres slowly through the seamless ratcheting of tension” can be found in the most conservative of genre mysteries. Ironically, the label of “genre” can lead to an unfair devaluation of great writing/storytelling. Not enough “Literary-ness” maybe?

    Finally, the reference here to the “rare thing called originality.” Can’t the freedom of structure and classical narrative technique create an underpinning within which the novelist or screenwriter can let their imagination run free and potentially create works of great originality and value? A tight metal structure through which molten lava from the unconscious can flow? (not to get writery there, but…whatever).

    Does too quick a dismissal of “conventional” structure create a risk of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” Who is to say that Mr. Morris’s three “template” screenplays, even though yet unproduced, aren’t gems that simply haven’t been taken out yet and given a chance to shine! I truly hope they are. :)

    Best regards,

    Maureen Murphy
    Washington DC

  2. To Maureen Murphy:

    I agree with you that the creative choice to work within a certain type of structure (or ignore conventional structures) has no bearing on the ultimate quality of a piece of writing. It seems to me that the only way to judge the success or failure of any work of art is to determine the artist’s intent, then determine if he or she succeeded or failed in realizing that intent. By that measure, I think Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a masterpiece because it does precisely what it sets out to do – it makes us so uneasy and queasy that it is able to scare the piss out of us. “The Counselor” succeeds by the same measure, though on a completely different level. So does Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

    I also agree with you that the “genre” label can lead to an unfair devaluation of great writing, though this stigma seems to be, mercifully, melting away. (I’m thinking of the critical and popular acclaim enjoyed by Elmore Leonard, John LeCarre, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville.) And yes, imagination can run free and produce original work within the confines of conventional structures – though I think, especially in the case of Hollywood screenwriters, the result is too often the formulaic dreck i mention in this essay. In short, there’s nothing wrong with structure, as long as the writer doesn’t use it to mask fatal shortcomings. Cormac McCarthy dared to ignore a lot of conventions while writing his screenplay, but the result was worth the risk. He produced a movie unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

    Thanks for reading The Millions and commenting so thoughtfully.

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