Judge Clark Douglas could use some soul food right about now.
Nothing is ever black or white.
The structure of the stage play The Sunset Limited has been used time and time again: two individuals discuss life within a confined space. It's a very simple type of production (even for the stage), so there's an enormous amount of pressure on the writer to keep the audience engaged. Fortunately, The Sunset Limited was written by the great Cormac McCarthy, who is seemingly incapable of turning in dull or unrewarding work. It's a riveting play—alternately tough, funny, tense and sobering—but it's also the sort of play that seems likely to remain exclusively on the stage for the duration of its life. Fortunately for those of us who might never have gotten an opportunity to see the production otherwise, Tommy Lee Jones (who did great work in the Coen Brothers' McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men) determined to transform The Sunset Limited into a movie for HBO.
The set-up is simple enough: an esteemed professor named White (played by Jones) has apparently made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide. He was rescued by an ex-con named Black (Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Brown), who has invited White into his apartment. White initially seems eager to leave, but feels a sense of obligation to stay for just a little bit out of respect for his rescuer. His desire to off himself seems unaltered, a troubling fact that Black picks up on rather quickly. Black begins quizzing White about his desire to commit suicide, which quickly leads to an exploration of the philosophical differences between the two men: White is an atheist and a cynic who is convinced the world is crumbling to pieces, while Black is a deeply religious man who tends to view things through an optimistic spiritual lens.
At this point, you might be rolling your eyes. Yes, the characters are initially presented as rather blunt polar opposites: Atheist vs. Believer, Black vs. White, Cynic vs. Optimist, Rich vs. Poor, Hope vs. Despair. Even so, McCarthy, Jones and Jackson never permit these people to feel like hypothetical individuals constructed out of standard-issue talking points; these are real human beings constructed out of very familiar human behavior. McCarthy finds so many little details that linger with us. Consider the manner in which White occasionally tends to use unnecessarily florid language as a way of quietly demonstrating his intellectual superiority (Jones: "I think the answer to your question is that the dialectic of the homily always presupposes a ground of evil." Jackson: "Damn, professor!"), or the little colloquialisms Black uses which keep throwing White offguard ("I ain't trying to put you in the trick bag").
As The Sunset Limited proceeds, the questions get larger and heavier, but the script thankfully keeps its light touch intact for the majority of the running time. There are quite a few laughs sprinkled throughout the flick, most of which are inspired by Jackson's lines (after Jones makes the Ecclesiastes-inspired suggestion that increased wisdom tends to lead to increased misery, Jackson replies, "If I'm understanding you right, you sayin' that everybody that ain't eat up with the dumbass ought to be suicidal?"). Over the course of ninety minutes, McCarthy outlines a series of fundamental arguments many of us have had at some point (if not with another person, than at least with ourselves), and the truths he unearths on both sides are potent rather than trite.
White: "The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different."
Black: "Belief ain't like unbelief. If you're a believer and you finally got to come to the well of belief itself, then you ain't got to look no further. There ain't no further. But the unbeliever's got a problem. He's set out to unravel the world. For everything he can point to that ain't true, he leaves two false things laying there."
The performances are consistently superb. Jones once again demonstrates that he's an actor who knows how to direct himself, and he delivers some shades of restless agitation which contrast nicely with his typically flat demeanor. There's also a sad, down-to-earth quality to his screen presence which makes White a less insufferable character than he might have been otherwise (it would be very easy for his slightly smug nihilism to come across as obnoxious if Jones didn't capture his potent despair). Jackson gets the showier role, and he dives into his colorful part with relish. Jackson delivers one killer monologue after another, including a particularly harrowing "jailhouse story" which eventually segues into intense violence. It's always a pleasure to watch Jackson deliver a performance at full volume, and he delivers the film's strongest emotional moment in the movie's closing scene.
Jones' direction is simple and clean; he never attempts to "open up" the play or alter the basic structure of the source material (any efforts in this regard would probably seem useless—would flashbacks to events the characters talk about really enhance the production?). However, he does take a few cues from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men in terms of finding ways to keep the cramped space interesting visually, and delivers a few compelling camera angles during crucial moments. It's certainly a much smaller production than his tremendous The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, but no less an indication that Jones really knows what he's doing behind the camera.
The Sunset Limited (Blu-ray) has received a handsome 1.78:1/1080p transfer. Though the film is essentially a talking heads piece which takes place within the confines of a rather small apartment, the warm visual palette and the cinematography keep it visually involving throughout. The level of detail is exceptional; you can see every whisker and wrinkle on the faces of Jones and Jackson. Blacks are impressively deep, shadow delineation is strong and crush is never a problem. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is mostly dialogue-driven, but Marco Beltrami's subtle score seeps through in effective fashion from time to time. The primary supplement is an audio commentary featuring Jones, Jackson and McCarthy, which is a bit quieter than I would like but which still offers a great deal of interest. Jones tends to stick to technical details while Jackson and McCarthy explore thematic material and share personal stories. Otherwise, you just get a disposable four-minute featurette created to promote the film on HBO.
I've heard various arguments about who "wins" the debate between the two central characters of The Sunset Limited. Any conclusions made say more about the person than they do about the film, which is less interesting in making one argument than in examining the merits of two. This is a fascinating, handsomely produced film that should serve as rewarding viewing for fans of Cormac McCarthy, the cast, and philosophically inclined filmmaking.
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