The Sunset Limited ** ½
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones.
Written by: Cormac McCarthy based on his play.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson (Black), Tommy Lee Jones (White).
The Sunset Limited works more in concept than it does in execution. It is a simple movie, based on a “Novel in a Play Format” by Cormac McCarthy that is simply two men in an apartment debating the meaning of existence and whether or not God is there. One of the men (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed) has just tried to end his life by jumping in front of a train. The other man (Samuel L. Jackson) pulled him back before he could do so, and the two are now in his apartment. Where they talk and talk and talk. Unlike some, I’ve never really minded the somewhat stagy visual look that many plays have when they make the transition to the screen. It can actually work quite well if you know what you’re doing. But The Sunset Limited seems horribly dated – which is why it shocked me to discover that it was actually written quite recently by McCarthy – one of America’s greatest living novelists. I assumed it was an earlier work.
The performances in the movie keep it afloat – mostly. Samuel L. Jackson was born to play this type of role – a murderer who has spent time in jail, where he found God, and has dedicated his life to him ever since. He is convinced that everything happens for a reason – which is why he is convinced that if he can simply talk to Tommy Lee Jones for a while, he’ll be able to change his mind and make him see the light. He is not a fire and brimstone type preacher, and his kind of religion is more kind and loving. He wants to make Jones see the light, the error of his ways, get him to repent and rejoice in life. But Jones isn’t buying. As much as Jackson is convinced there is a God, Jones is convinced there isn’t. He is a literature professor, with no friends, no family, and over the years art and culture – the things that have kept him going – have begun to lose their meaning to him. He sees no choice but to kill himself. Both men know that when he leaves, he’ll most likely go right back to the subway station and try it again. Which is why Jackson has locked the door.
Jackson is brilliant, despite or perhaps because of his stagy dialogue. Jackson is a versatile actor, but I think he excels more at playing over the top characters instead of more realistic ones – there is a reason why he’s better than most at delivering Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue – because he’s relishes its dramatic furor. He does the same thing here, and he commands the screen. For much of the running time, you think that in this battle of wills he is winning – if for no other reason than because he talks more. For his part, Tommy Lee Jones spends much of the movie downcast, pitiful and pathetic. He buries his head in his hands for much of it, delivers his lines in a depressed monotone, and for the most part, wasn’t all that interesting to me. That is until his final monologue – the one that gets Jackson to open the door. In its cynicism and hopelessness, Jones comes alive. He doesn’t talk as much because he doesn’t need to – he doesn’t give a shit if Jackson believes him or not. He’s not looking to convert anyone, just to die.
This probably sounds more interesting than it plays. Had the play been written a few decades ago, its conflict between religion and atheism may have seemed daring. Now it simply seems clichéd. McCarthy is a great novelist, but his best novels are often spare on dialogue – and that’s part of what makes them so effective. Here, where there is nothing but dialogue, I think he overreaches a little bit – tries too hard to be poetic. And it doesn’t really work. As a director, Tommy Lee Jones never quite figures out how to shoot the movie. His debut effort, The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada (which I liked, but didn’t love like many seemed to) was better, and had a real visual sense. Here, the visuals are an afterthought.
The Sunset Limited is not a bad made for HBO movie, but it isn’t a particularly good one either. Place it in a time capsule and send it back to the 1960s though, and you may have something here.