Cormac McCarthy + Tommy Lee Jones + Samuel L. Jackson. Do we have your attention? Well, it certainly caught ours as those three names alone would get us curious about whatever it is they’re involved with, but if you’re expecting a dusty western or grim gothic tale you’re going to be in for a bit of surprise. “The Sunset Limited” is based on McCarthy’s play and its conceit is quite simple: two guys in an apartment talking about all the fun stuff like religion, death and whether human nature is defaulted to suffering or happiness. So maybe this isn’t too outside of McCarthy’s regular wheelhouse.
Executive produced and directed by Jones, he certainly has a big task ahead of him to make the dialogue and idea-heavy play work on the big screen so it’s not just two heads talking, and full credit to him, at least visually, the film is never static. The action is kicked off by something we don’t see onscreen: Black (Jackson; yes, the characters are referred to by color only) has pulled White (Jones) from throwing himself in front of the path of the titular subway train. They wind up in Black’s apartment moments after the event and so begins their chat that will wind from heavy topic to heavy topic in the way that conversations between two strangers rarely ever do.
At first White is noticeably irritable and slightly disoriented and not without good reason — he just tried to kill himself. Black at first first tries to calm him down before letting him back out in the world where he might try to do the deed again and does everything he can to keep White in his shabby, tenement apartment. But Black also has a bit of a sinister motive. He’s a former jailbird who is now reformed and an evangelical Christian. To White’s amazement, Black reveals that he chooses to live where he does because it allows him to try and turn people to God and of course, their talk turns to the Bible. And so begins a dance as topics veer from religion to the emptiness of popular culture and all manner of heavy subjects. As the conversation moves forward, we learn that White is a professor, friendless, deeply unhappy, who has come to the realization that all of his life’s pursuits are utterly meaningless — prompting the attempt at taking his own life. He doesn’t believe in God and moreover, doesn’t believe humanity is capable of true happiness. Basically, you’ve never see Tommy Lee Jones as dour as he is here. Yet, despite his bleak outlook, White does remain curious, probing Black about his beliefs and his jail time, something he is fascinated by.
If it all sounds very ponderous, well, it is and it’s much to the film’s detriment. There is a clinical distance in McCarthy’s work that keeps it from ever picking up steam. The script is so frontloaded with weighty thematic ideals, that we never truly care about White or Black, get invested in either side of the debate, nor do we even really care or are all that concerned about whether White will take his life or not. But damn if the actors don’t do their best to keep things engaging. Much of the responsibility of keep things lively falls on Jackson’s shoulders as the more energetic and animated of the two and for the most part he performs admirably and with a surprising restraint. But even he feels the pull of the staid proceedings around him and during a jailhouse story he tells White, he begins to channel Jules Winnfield so much, you have expect him to top off the story with “And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.” As for Jones, he does the rumpled potato sack thing quite well and it’s only in the late stages of the film he gets to break out a bit with a teeth gnashing monologue.
Directed admirably by Jones, the film is at least never as static as its location, but it’s an overall cerebral exercise that has zero in the way of emotional weight. When the brief moments of the fine music by Marco Beltrami burbles up here and there, the film seems to be moving onto a grander statement but those instances are fleeting and as the score fades so do any hopes that the material will elevate itself off the page. Sadly, a moment of catharsis or enlightenment or insight never arrives. We leave the film with two sides, argued passionately, but only barely scratching the surface of the human condition they so desperately wish to explore. [C]
“The Sunset Limited” debuts on HBO on February 12th at 9 PM.