A film review by Craig J. Koban February 16, 2011
THE SUNSET LIMITED
2011, No MPAA Rating, 91
2011, No MPAA Rating, 91 mins.
Tommy Lee Jones: White / Samuel L. Jackson: Black
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones / Written by Cormac McCarthy, based on his play
SUNSET LIMITED is a film about the study and nature of contrasts:
black versus white, life versus death, good versus evil, hope
versus despair, and faith versus atheism.
It’s significant that there are only two characters on screen
during the entire 91 minutes in one simple setting, which serves the
purpose of embellishing the themes ever further.
One man is a morally and emotionally defeated soul that sees no
escape other than death and the other is a man that also, at one point in
his life, felt
no higher purpose, but rescued himself through God and the Bible.
The suicidal man describes the Bible as “a guide for the ignorant
and sick of heart.” The
religious man would like to prove him otherwise…even though he just may
SUNSET LIMITED may not have the superficial trappings of a Cormac McCarthy
work, but the film's core is pure McCarthy through and through.
Of course, you may recall that the Pulitzer Prize winning American
novelist and playwright wrote novels that inspired two of the best movies
that I saw in the last decade in NO
COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE ROAD,
which contained western and modernist themes about the nature of man’s
ability to cope with inescapably hopeless situations.
THE SUNSET LIMITED may have a more minimalist setting and sparse
approach than those two aforementioned works, but it still continues the
writer expounding upon the same basic thesis: how can people find and sustain meaning in a corrupt and damaged
world that often has none?
goes further than that: The film, which McCarthy wrote, based on his 2006
play, tackles weighty theological and existentialist issues that everyone
at some point has pondered – can God truly exist within a world that, as
the atheist states, is a “moral leper colony”?
There is arguably no more profound philosophical question that a
film could ask of its viewers, and the genius of THE SUNSET LIMITED is
that it miraculously never takes sides in the debate.
McCarthy neither lets the spiritually righteous man nor the
suicidal man that spits on faith come off as the correct alternative.
The film's exquisitely written dialogue demands all of
our collective attention so that we can give both sides equal merit, which
is considerably tougher than it appears.
two men in question are not given names, just simple designations:
White (Tommy Lee Jones) and Black (Samuel L. Jackson), which, in
their respective case, is also their skin color.
They verbally spare with one another in Black’s dreary and run
down Washington Heights tenement after White’s attempted suicide at a
subway station when he jumped in front of the Sunset Limited train (hence,
the title). We never see the
suicide attempt or the events that led up to it; the entire film takes
place within Black’s tiny apartment and we, like quiet voyeurs, become a
part of their ever-escalating debate about what happened and, of course,
fundamentalist quandaries about higher powers and whether our lives merely
characters are uniformly well developed as unique and compelling
personalities. Black is an ex-convict that became an evangelical Christian
while in prison: he is a modest and simple figure, going out of his way
to explain that he does not have an original thought in his head and that
all he needs to know is in the Bible (“If it ain’t got the scent of
divinity in it, I ain’t interested,” he explains).
He believes that Jesus spoke to him in prison and that he also gave
him a mission to cross paths with White to physically save him from the
Sunset Limited and to spiritually save him later from himself.
White is a staunch atheist and college professor.
He is a shrewd intellect and has a cunning analytical mind that
once believed in art, but now only believes in the release that death would
have provided for him if he were allowed to die at the train station.
White is angry, suffering, and disillusioned about the world he
occupies and the thought of continuing on is a burden he can not bare, let
alone the notion of eternal life that Black says faith and the words of
Jesus have to offer. “If I
thought that in death I would meet the people I’ve known in life,” he
pitifully explains, “that would be the ultimate horror.”
though White’s militant stance on wanting to die and his lack of trust
and belief in God makes him a terribly tough egg to crack, Black
nonetheless persists in trying to convert him to how he sees things.
Black perceives White as an inordinately clever man that has let his own
human fragilities cloud his vision as to what really matters in life.
What Black would like most is for White to see the gift and
sanctity of living and why throwing it all away would be futile. White, however, tries to convince Black of the exact
opposite: he views existence as wholly bankrupted and an illusory
backdrop riddled with lies, despair, and and unachievable goals.
Since every path one takes seems to lead to pain and suffering, the
only route he feels one should take is death.
One thing is for sure: both men push each other’s respective
buttons and the film culminates in a brilliantly crafted give and
take dissection of faith, reason, and life until it ultimately becomes
hard to truly side with either of the men.
Almost mercifully, the film concludes itself by offering no
SUNSET LIMITED is simply one of the most thoughtful, intimate, elegantly
constructed, and magnificently acted and written films I’ve seen thus
far in 2011. It masterfully
continues McCarthy’s aims to tackle stern and desolate themes that he
did relay in NO COUNTRY and THE ROAD, but this time THE SUNSET LIMITED is
arguably even more dark and depraved. There is no obvious tangible violence, suffering, and
bloodshed in the film, but there is enough pontificating about it to make the film
come off as direr. The
film also joyously succeeds for how it allows the modest virtues of
performance and dialogue to propel the story forward, and even though the
film has very little to no action, per se, in it, the pacing is almost
breathlessly fast for how McCarthy harnesses his voice and command of
language and uses it as a springboard for his personalities to create
compelling arguments with one another.
You’re glued to the screen not so much for what you see but more
for what is said. That’s a
rare commodity in today’s filmscape.
(also serving as director and producer and no stranger to McCarthy; he was
in NO COUNTRY) and Jackson have rarely been better and THE SUNSET LIMITED
is a film to see two actors at the upper echelon of their thespian powers
go one on one. It becomes an utterly fascinating chess match of wits
and will between the two souls as they mutually try to break the resolve
of the other and allowing for them to see things from their own prerogative.
Jackson, when not allowing himself to wallow in mediocre projects,
is capable of being one of our most authoritative and charismatic
performers, and he is in pure form as his initially confident and
honorable minded preacher. The
emotional gauntlet he runs is quite remarkable: he traverses through
feelings of understanding and concern towards White to perplexing rage and
ultimately to confusion when it comes to his own faith.
Beyond that, when he offers up a searing and teeth clenched
monologue as to a dreadful act he committed in prison, it’s impossible not
to be transfixed on Jackson: when
he’s in his zone, he’s mesmerizing.
I think, has the more trickier performance task playing, depending on how
you see it, either the pragmatic and depressed victim, the selfish and
arrogant-minded pseudo-antagonist, or a combination of both.
Jones has always had a quiet and understated power as an actor and
his cracked and craggy face has become more interesting as he ages.
He too, like Jackson’s Black, has to navigate through a
staggering array of feelings: he’s openly smug and self-centered at
times, but he is also brings a teary-eyed vulnerability that’s hard
not to empathize with. He
occupies, though, the movie’s real tour de force sequence of animalistic
conviction when he utters one of the most strikingly raw and
nihilistically compelling monologues in a long time. He methodically lays out
his rationale as to why a life of God and faith will never come to him: it’s
an absolutely chilling and riveting moment.
There are two last points that need to be made: Firstly, THE SUNSET LIMITED further establishes Jones to be a major directorial talent (as if THE THREE BURIALS FOR MELQUIADES ESTRADA was not enough to prove that). He wisely knows not to overwhelm the film with lame and distracting visual flourishes and technique (which could have been tempting considering the shockingly limited scope of the piece): he lets the camera linger in simple shots that not only allows the actors to shine, but it also does a bravura job of heightening the tension (he captures all of the subtle details of the apartment and the ambient noise surrounding it to create a sense of immediacy and mood). Lastly, THE SUNSET LIMITED is another rallying cry and masterful triumph for HBO, which has proven time after time (see RECOUNT, TEMPLE GRANDIN, YOU DON’T KNOW JACK, and THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP) that they garner and deserve rightful comparison to the best that the theatrical silver screen has to offer. The film mixes pathos and humor to exemplary effect, is affecting and contemplative, and explores large ideas via small settings and staging that big budget Hollywood productions would definitely shy away from.
TAKING CHANCE (2009) 1/2
TEMPLE GRANDIN (2010)
THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP (2010) 1/2
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK (2010)
CINEMA VERITE (2011) 1/2
TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011) 1/2
GAME CHANGE (2012)
HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN (2012) 1/2
THE GIRL (2012)
PHIL SPECTOR (2013)
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)
CLEAR HISTORY (2013)