Fancy Talk: When Characters Are Too Smart For Their Own Good
The extinction of all reality is a concept that no resignation can encompass. And yet, in that despair, which is transcendent, you will find the ancient understanding that the Philosopher’s Stone will always be found despised and buried in the mud. This may seem like a small thing in the face of annihilation, until annihilation occurs. And then all the designs and grand plans will be revealed for what they are.
What do you make of that quote? Is it a passage from one of Nietzsches’ works? Or perhaps it’s an excerpt from an archaic scroll with hints of Ecclesiastes? Maybe it’s part of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Seward about how the Civil War is affecting him. Whatever scenario you come up with, I’m sure that there will be one detail that is consistent with what everyone else guesses: it’s old. There’s no way this was written in a modern setting, it had to have been from some time ago, right? Wrong.
The quote above is delivered by the character Jefe in Ridley Scott’s 2013 crime thriller The Counselor as he tries to teach the eponymous hero that he can’t undo the mistakes he’s made. The film takes place in present day, so it’s not like this monologue is going down in some Arthurian castle way back when; it happens in the here and now. And as meaningful as the speech is, it does have one glaring problem: no one talks like that.
I don’t intend that statement to be pejorative in any way, it’s just an observation based on how I’ve seen people talk nowadays. This isn’t to say that this kind of diction was never used, it’s just become extraneous in modern lexicons. With the advent of instant messaging people don’t feel it necessary to go out of their way to show off their word skills. Most are quite content with keeping things as simple as possible. Today a whole text conversation can consist of nothing more than:
Anne: Wut u doin?
Max: Nuthin lol.
Not exactly the most shining example of writerly acumen but as I said it doesn’t have to be. Unfortunately it seems as though Pulitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy didn’t know that when he was writing The Counselor. From beginning to end the script is filled with all sorts of philosophical dialogue that didn’t really connect with theater goers. Not only did audiences feel like the story was woefully nihilistic, but they also claimed that the writing reeked of pretentiousness. They didn’t see it as an extension of the characters (which it ought to be) but rather as McCarthy showing off his writing chops. I’d also wager that there were probably a lot of people who flat-out didn’t understand what was being said. I’ll admit to being one of them; the first time I saw the flick I got hung up on a couple of scenes because I didn’t really know what the characters meant to say. I was just stuck in a daze thinking, the hell did that mean?
The problem is that I felt like a bit of a hypocrite for thinking that because there’s a whole slew of films and TV programs that are marvelous in large part because of their sophisticated word usage. So why is it that The Counselor kind of bugged me? The conclusion I drew was that if such dialogue is used, it either has to be congruent to the story’s setting or spoken with such verisimilitude that the audience completely buys it.
Period pieces are the easiest means by which a screenwriter can use eloquent dialogue. If you watch Lincoln or the HBO miniseries John Adams you’ll quickly notice that the characters’ brilliance shines through the way they speak. And if you crack open any Library of America text that archives the letters and speeches of John Adams, you’ll see that real history matches the reel history; lofty language was the norm back then. Because the diction matches the setting, the audience is able to accept it as it is.
Plus, it isn’t like the characters are stiff when they speak. In The Counselor, the character’s speak in a very odd, almost stilted manner. First Javier Bardem will say something, then Cameron Diaz will reply, and then Javier Bardem will finish the scene with another line. It’s like the dialogue is turn based for some reason. On the other hand, in the film Lincoln where Daniel Day-Lewis is arguing with Sally Field about sending their son to join the war effort, the dialogue is still very articulate but the manner in which they deliver it makes all the difference. They constantly change their emotions, going from mournful to furious to puzzled, their tones shift, they interrupt and speak over one another. It’s a very intense scene because it feels real.
The second method that screenwriters employ to make high-minded language acceptable for the audience is more or less an extension of the last point I made. Verisimilitude in dialogue is the crux of any character because if we don’t buy what’s coming out of their mouths then we see them as a flat character. I’d say that’s what made The Counselor’s dialogue absolutely helpless and open to scrutiny. Since it wasn’t set in the past, the acting was all the filmmaker’s could rely upon to make the words sound real, but sadly they didn’t. Between the stop-and-go manner of speaking and the unbelievable fact that (with the exception of Penelope Cruz’s character) everyone in that film speaks the same way, it isn’t all that surprising that audiences thought the movie was too fake to take seriously.
Conversely, the new HBO drama thriller True Detective is packed with McCarthy-esque philosophical dialogue, courtesy of Matthew McConaughey’s character Cohle. The reason that True Detective succeeds where The Counselor fails is in the quality of the delivery. Fassbender, Bardem, and Diaz were all decent in the movie, but it was awfully hard to believe that the characters were saying what they were saying. In True Detective, I believe that Cohle’s dialogue is the most vital part of his character. Through the way he speaks about the world, Cohle is illuminated and comes to life. To add to this realism, Nic Pizzolatto (the show’s creator and screenwriter) uses other characters who don’t use Cohle’s language and don’t share his outlook to create an anchor for the audience. So if Cohle starts saying stuff we don’t understand or disagree with, there will be a character who represents us and who will challenge him on their own terms and in their own voice. Because of this we get a whole plethora of vivid characters, each with their own distinct personalities and thus the experience feels fuller.
I’ve revisited The Counselor since I saw it in theaters and in all honesty I did find myself enjoying it more. I could appreciate what was being said and the storyline, while excruciating to watch, isn’t as plain as I thought it was. But in spite of this, I still maintain that the dialogue is just too false to find believable. Were it a novel, I think that people wouldn’t have been as negative because in a book an author can get away with using dialogue like that. Many of McCarthy’s works feature a character who speaks in existential speeches (I’m thinking mainly of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men) and we are totally okay with it because the writing is the only means in which the author can explore the themes and ideas that he’s presenting to the audience. But a film has other elements at play; there’s acting and cinematography and set design involved, not just writing. And when you rely too much on the elegance of the writing, you end up creating an inaccurate portrayal of human beings. At best, people will scoff at this kind of writing and call it pretentious and at worst people will dismiss it for being incomprehensible. What the filmmaker’s behind The Counselor didn’t fully realize is that the dialogue does not illuminate the character, the character illuminates the dialogue.
What do you think? Leave a comment.