Dir. Tommy Lee Jones
(2011, Not Rated, 91 min)
Cormac McCarthy has a way with words. The Sunset Limited is composed of good words that in this case are not the building blocks of a great film but nevertheless get under your skin. What distinguishes it, as well as the few other McCarthy works I’m familiar with – No Country for Old Men and The Road – is a prevailing pessimism about the human condition, but a pessimism that is somehow not cynical. It’s compassionate at its core. The two unnamed characters in this film, which McCarthy adapted from his own play, are aboard opposite trains of thought: one is a misanthrope who wants to kill himself, and the other is an optimist who believes in eternal life through God. That they are known only as White and Black is a reference to their respective races, but not just. They represent starkly opposed worldviews. Can they be reconciled? Well that’s the question, isn’t it.
When I say McCarthy adapted the screenplay from his stage play, that’s mostly to quote the opening credits. In terms of its production, there seems to have been little need to alter the stage play at all: the only discernible difference between this and a theater performance is the substitution of a camera for an audience. It’s a chamber play: one setting (a rundown Manhattan apartment), two characters, and no visual embellishment. Tommy Lee Jones directs, in addition to playing the suicidal man, and he keeps it simple. Mostly he sticks to a basic shot reverse shot filming style, and occasionally a character will move somewhat self-consciously to the couch instead of the dining table to keep the scene active. He leaves it to McCarthy’s writing to do the heavy lifting, and to the performances to convey its meaning. It takes place in one night, and we notice a subtle but perceptible change in lighting as dawn approaches, which is evocative in an understated way.
It helps that the acting is very good. Samuel L. Jackson plays the other man, an ex-con who believes in Jesus Christ and tries to convince the suicidal man to believe as well, but he doesn’t come across as some zealous, housing-project missionary; Jesus and the Good Book are the framework by which he has learned to have hope for the world, and so he tries to impart that hope on someone who has none. McCarthy doesn’t definitively embrace or repudiate Christianity, but leaves us, and Jackson’s character, questioning. Ingmar Bergman often pondered the silence of God, and here so does McCarthy.