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STUDIO: HBO Studios
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
• Behind the Scenes
• Commentary with Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cormac McCarthy
A black ex-con who hears Jesus prevents a white professor from committing suicide and then tries to convince him not to try again.
Written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson
Two incredible actors sit in a room and engage in a thought-provoking debate on faith versus grim reason.
Commonly, the only time you’re going to hear about religion on television is during a political debate when it’s used to fortify some agenda concerning why two dudes can’t marry or why abortion makes you a slut. Unless you watch exclusively religious channels, you’re not going to hear any real discussion concerning the significance (or insignificance) of faith or the nature of belief as it applies to everyday life and our culture. The conflict between reason and spirituality seems to be nonexistent in the media unless it’s politicized, so that’s why The Sunset Limited is such a pleasure to watch. Well, that and because I could watch Tommy Lee jones and Samuel L. Jackson sit in a room and read the phone book for 90 minutes and still be enthralled.
Based on the Cormac McCarthy (novelist of No Country for Old Men and The Road) play of the same name, The Sunset Limited takes place in real time, solely in a bare-bones tenement apartment. It opens with two men, simply called Black (Jackson) and White (Jones), brooding at one another across a table. Earlier that day, Black had prevented White from jumping in front of the “Sunset Limited” train – to White’s dismay. White, a nihilistic philosophy professor, explains that he’s gained nothing but contempt for the world from his life in academia. He sees no joy in life but the prospect of peace in death. Black, an ex-con who now lives a simple Christian life, believes that White will try to kill himself again if he can’t persuade him not to through the promise of Jesus.
The major problem with Black’s attempt is: how do you entice someone with the prospect of eternal life if he’s begging for the void? White doesn’t want an afterlife where he gets to see his family and friends again. Black is stalwart in the face of White’s despair – defending his stance and going toe-to-toe with an aging philosophy professor who claims he reads two books a week. Black’s only read one book, the Bible (duh), and that’s all he needs. He even states that he never has original thoughts, everything he does, says, thinks, smells, etc. comes directly from the mighty King James. White, on the other hand, has a seemingly limitless knowledge of art, culture, and history, but it’s that very knowledge that’s driven him to suicide. It’s truly heartbreaking stuff.
Jackson’s career seems to have been a punchline to most people recently, but we shouldn’t forget that this man has some serious dramatic chops on him. He can stick and move through a complex range of emotions at the drop of a hat. And you need someone with that much talent to go head-on against Mr. Tommy Lee Jones, someone who I believe is a force of pure American nature when he’s on screen. His uncanny ability to “say more with less” is on full glorious display in Sunset Limited. Jones, who also directed, takes the poetic words of Cormac McCarthy and delivers them with honesty and true meaning – like he also did in No Country for Old Men. Jones’ face should be deemed a national treasure.
In the end, Sunset Limited doesn’t offer any easy answers because there are none. It’s filled with 90 minutes of existentialist, thought-provoking dialogue on the meaning of faith and existence itself, all delivered by two superb actors. If you can’t live without a resolution or are unused to theater, you may want to stay away from this one.
The five minute making-of segment features Jones, Jackson, and McCarthy briefly addressing their process from one-act play to 90 minute movie. They explain how McCarthy was on set during filming and how he’d talk to them about the characters and each scene. Production designer Meredith Boswell talks about several aspects of filming, including how they built Black’s tenement apartment so that the camera had freedom to maneuver.
In the commentary, Jones, Jackson, and the normally reclusive McCarthy talk about a heap of topics – not always concerned with the film. After Jones quickly gets the technical junk out of the way – discussing the Sony digital camera and the post color adjusting – the three maintain a casual conversational tone throughout. They cover everything from books they read as children, how much of the Bible they’ve actually read (Jones and Jackson have read very little), and hunting when they were children. McCarthy, an accomplished novelist, talks about the difficulties of writing a play. My favorite part of the commentary? Every time Jackson addresses Jones as “TL.” I couldn’t imagine calling him anything but Tommy Lee or the full spread: Tommy Lee Jones.
Rating: Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars