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.

Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and the gent who wrote The Counselor.
Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and the gent who wrote The Counselor.

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 dialogueIf 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.

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  1. Juliana Stanton

    You presented your case very well. Basically, The Counsellor raised great expectations with its very talented cast and creative crew but then subverts them with a clumsy and wordy suspense thriller that is mercilessly short on suspense or thrills.

    • Olive Bates

      Maybe it’s because Ridley Scott is a dreadful director. An ad man, big on style and visual drama, not so keen on story telling or character development. Gladiator is one of the worst films ever. Blade Runner and Alien were just concepts. Beautifully drawn but ultimately empty. 1492? How do you make an unwatchable film about Columbus? Easy, hire Ridley Scott. Sorry, hate to be mean but it’s all smoke and mirrors.

      • Have to disagree about Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner. Three films that each broke a particular mould that many others have tried to imitate but never beaten. Alien was so far ahead of its time in both story and effects, it is still enjoyable to this day. Gladiator brought back the concept of ‘Big’ historical style productions long since forgotten, bringing a ‘Ten Commandments’ or ‘Ben Hur’ sense of scale not seen for many years. As to Blade Runner, again I think it touches on interesting topics and suggestions that become ever more important to this day…for example, much of the West coast of the US is genuinely being taken over by Asian influx and androids and all the complications that come with them as a concept, is a subject matter where we may look back in time and see Blade Runner as a perfect prediction of the future.
        Yes Ridley has had a few duds (I agree about 1492), but then name me a film director that has not?

    • I stayed for the entire movie. The film is a confused mess and very hard to follow. As my wife said–Do not let your attention wander you will never find your way back to the plot

  2. Really interesting article. Completely agree about your notes for True Detective, one of the best written shows of late.

    • Absolutely ismael. With Boardwalk Empire ending this fall, I think Game of Thrones will probably be the only other “flagship” show on HBO.

    • Aw, thanks Michelle, I appreciate it. Thanks again for the notes you gave me when this piece was still in the editorial process.

  3. Well said, August. There’s something to be said for subtext in good dialogue, too, but it must be tough to create undercurrents of emotion when a character drowns the audience/reader with esoteric language (unless it’s a period/historical piece, as you mentioned).

    • Thanks rlucas81, I appreciate your response. Subtext is the most important part of a character and to mess it up spells doom for them. One of the things that hurt McCarthy’s script was that everyone talked in the same way; same vocabulary, same themes, same everything. In his other works, McCarthy is able to flesh out very unique characters through their dialogue but here it seems like they all bleed into one another.

  4. As an English major and quite the word-lover myself, I have always appreciated admired an extensive and eloquent vocabulary. However, after years of being affectionately known as a “teacher’s pet,” “bookworm,” or “nerd,” I know all too well that using such a vocabulary can come across as pretentious. I think a good rule of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to employing the use of “fancy talk” is to treat it like putting salt or pepper on a plate of eggs: just the right amount will complete the dish and enhance its flavor, while too much will ruin it and leave a bad taste in your mouth. I think the author makes a good point here in that it is less about what is being said and more about how it is being said.

    • I never thought of that before; that’s a splendid way to look at dialogue. The Counselor was an example of, as you would say, overloading the dish with too much salt or pepper. But conversely a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which relies almost entirely on juvenile, silly dialogue is just as bad. But most pictures are able to strike a very decent balance between the two. Even a film like The Dark Knight which doesn’t have a very dense vocabulary is still remarkably brilliant in terms of the exchanges between the characters. Thanks a bunch for the comment ElanoreD4494, I appreciate it 🙂

  5. I agree with this article in most regards – I’ve seen forced, strange exchanges from all sorts of fictional characters. For example, it’s particularly hard for me to get into horror stories when things like emails back and forth between characters include ellipses, perfect punctuation, and they all express the same tone so there’s no distinction between voices. Similarly, in action films, character’s speech is always fast-paced and ridiculous. If you were really to hear someone talk in such a staged way, you’d probably want to laugh, or at least say, “Geez, buddy, what are you all uptight about?”. Creating believable characters is imperative to a story line, and one way to do it is through natural dialogue.

  6. Jonathan Matos

    This is challenging as a writer with diction issues. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Stewart

    McCarthy needs understatement to work and the Coen brothers managed that very well. With Ridley Scott and that cast it was never going to work.

    • Bingo. I figure the reason that No Country for Old Men worked so well was because the Coens understand both subtlety and nuance. I think Ridley Scott is a terrific filmmaker but he does have a particular niche that really compliments him, which I think is the intense, action packed extravaganza type of film (like Gladiator or Body of Lies). But a crime drama that seeks to delve into the criminal psyche didn’t seem to be his cup of tea, though I believe he did the best to show us his vision/interpretation of McCarthy’s script.

  8. Art Posocco

    I didn’t see The Counselor yet, but I’m wondering if the problem might be a disconnect between the script’s attempt to be overtly stylized and Scott’s attempt to present it in a realistic way. If Scott attempted to make the film less realistic and more stylized, do you think the dialogue would have seemed less out of place? This also makes me think of all of the Shakespeare adaptations that are set in contemporary times but keep Shakespeare’s language (e.g., Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing). Audiences are more forgiving of ornate language in these instances. Is it only because they accept that the script originated in the 1600s?

    • That’s tough to say. On the one hand, there have been a string of modern remakes of Shakespeare’s work like Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III with Ian McKellan. But those were so highly stylized and fight the mood of the original works so well that they worked. Conversely, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet was so over the top and angsty that I found it to be a rather obnoxious film. But appreciation for philosophical language doesn’t mean that it can only exist in works that are set in the past, they just have to be presented in a, as you said, stylized manner, like the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men. You hit the nail on the head when you said that Scott did not add any sort of nuance to The Counselor, it was presented in a straight forward way that made it seem like the actors were just reciting the lines. Thanks a bunch for you comment Art 🙂

  9. I totally agree with the differences between The Counselor and True Detective. The main thing is that Mathew McConaughey’s character (Rust) stands out in his dialogue, whereas all of the characters in The Counselor speak similarly and the lack of realism is compounded.

    Rust’s language is still not necessarily realistic, but it is believable because of what you point out (the other characters, primarily Marty, are able to address it with their own more relatable voices).

    • That’s a good point, whether the most important part of dialogue is realism or believability. Realism is easy to bend in any medium but if there isn’t a measure of verisimilitude then we regard it as being phony. Thanks for the comment Shane, I enjoyed your article on the 8 films that need attention 🙂

  10. rubengc

    I found that “at the worlds end” sufferes from a similar problem.

    great article

  11. Great last line. It really comes down to execution. There are some movies in which very stylized dialogue is used to great effect. I’m thinking of Little Murders, written by the cartoonist Jules Feiffer. It was entirely composed of insane soliloquies nobody in real life could ever be expected to say. And it was hilarious. On the other hand, I’d hate to think that just because our national discourse has descended to the level of Twitter (I remember when MTV was the definition of our short attention span; 30 years later our attention spans have dwindled to 36 characters of less) our movies have to follow suit.

  12. I wonder, is maybe part of the problem that the dialog isn’t what you expected? When ever we go in and start a book or movie or play we come in with some expectations. You mentioned “Lincoln.” Lincoln is obviously a period piece, as you said, so you went in with different expectations. You expected longer, stranger dialog, and thus you were willing to suspend your disbelief for it (even if in reality, everyday speech was little like that even then). Lots of movies have really stupid, really unreal dialog, but aren’t we willing to set that aside so that we can enjoy the movie?

    Do you think that maybe your reasons would have been different if you went in expecting a movie that philosophized liberally instead of a neo-noir crime drama?

    • That’s hard to say. Knowing that Cormac McCarthy was writing the screenplay, I fully expected there to be dark, brooding philosophy involved. The main problem for me was that the delivery did not feel all that natural in terms of delivery. It felt like it was simply being read and not expressed by the characters as their true feelings/thoughts. Take the example of True Detective; it is filled to the brim with very dense, philosophical dialogue, but the acting is what sells it and makes it connect with us and feel like we’re watching actual people talk. While I do respect the themes that The Counselor was tinkering with, I do not think that the way that these themes were presented through the dialogue worked all that well. Thanks for the comment, I hope to hear back from you.

  13. Parminder Singh

    just like the film.. i didn’t get the article.. i am sorry but i hoped for finding the exact meaning of the dialogue of “the jefe” : “the philosopher’s stone would always be …..”
    Why am i not able to understand it ? i mean relate it to the film

    • From what I took from it, it meant that when people are face to face with death and do not have to worry about thinking what dying will be like, they end up embracing it. The Philosopher’s Stone (at least from what I gather) was an ancient relic that when used with the right amount of alchemy could be used to make the user immortal. So when The Jefe says that, “The philosophers stone will always be found despised and buried in the mud,” I take it he means that in the end, none of us want to live forever. Even when we fear death, we would prefer to meet it than to prolong it for as long as we can.

  14. First of all I would like to point out that no man of learning has to forgo his vocabulary for the sake of a simpleton that wants to lol. Because the majority of the modern society is degenerating at a high rate does not imply one has to be an accomplice. To those incapable of thought and reason and in dire need of like OMG dude, totally, I suggest you find your comfort in SouthPark and Simpsons 🙂

  15. Sunni Rashad

    Strong article sir, I like your style. Too often writers tend to fall on the side of verbosity in place of believable dialogue or even worse they try to use colloquialisms that are dated by the time they’re used. It makes it hard for me to watch a lot of 90s movies because of this.

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