A film review by Craig J. Koban February 16, 2011

Rank:  #18 



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

THE 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 never. 

THE 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? 

It 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.    

The 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 end with death. 

Both 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.     



Conversely, 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.” 

Even 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 concrete conclusion. 

THE 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. 

Jones (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. 

Jones, 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. 


CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:


RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2


TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj




YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj


CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


TOO BIG TO FAIL  (2011jj1/2


GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj




THE GIRL  (2012) jj


PHIL SPECTOR  (2013) jjj




CLEAR HISTORY  (2013) jjj



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