The Sunset Limited debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Two men sit in a room. They’re two men who might never encounter each other, but for a brief moment that probably shouldn’t have happened. They talk. They have different views on the world and what it is. Neither is really able to gain an upper hand at bringing the other closer to his point of view. Eventually, you begin to realize this isn’t just an argument between two men; it’s an argument between two ways of looking at the world, a desperate struggle between two creeds that can easily be seen as self-defeating. Eventually one “triumphs,” but only in the sense that he is able to escape the situation with his worldview mostly intact. The other wonders about the futility of trying to convince anyone else of anything. It all feels far more apocalyptic than it really probably should.
While that’s the basic outline for the plot of tonight’s The Sunset Limited, a new made-for-TV movie debuting on HBO based on the 2006 play by Cormac McCarthy, it’s also the basic outline for thousands upon thousands of other plays. Some of those plays are good. Some of those plays are bad. Some are absurd. Some are dour and realistic. But the idea of two people discussing how they see the world and trying to bring each other to that viewpoint is one of the central underpinnings of the modern drama scene. Every drama writer worth his or her salt has taken a stab at this basic idea at least once (or written a play that has a lengthy section that’s just two people talking, at least), and David Mamet seems to do this with every other play he writes—and that’s only a slight exaggeration.
It makes sense that McCarthy, then, would turn to this format for what’s only his second play. The acclaimed novelist, winner of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, writes books with such large-scale, brooding, apocalyptic imagery that it’s difficult to conceive of him dipping his toes into something so deliberately small-scale. But at the same time, the format is such a basic one and so rich for someone who loves opposing worldviews (like McCarthy) that it seems natural for him to be playing around with these ideas in his second theatrical outing. At first, The Sunset Limited purports to be a clash between belief (in God) and skepticism. But as it goes on, it becomes something much more cunning. It’s less a battle of trying to make someone believe in God and more a question of whether the only rational response to a world that’s gone off the rails is outright nihilism and self-destruction. It’s a canny piece of work, but it’s not going to leave anybody smiling, which is likely why it ended up on HBO, rather than in your local multiplex, despite the all-star cast.
Tommy Lee Jones is White, a New York City professor who hurled himself in the path of an oncoming train but was saved from death by Black (Samuel L. Jackson), a low-income worker living in a shitty apartment. Black has dragged White back to that apartment to try and save his life, more or less, to get him to see that ending his life is the very worst thing he could do. Black believes in God and Jesus and the Bible because of a revelatory experience he had in prison. White does not believe in any of that. He only believes in a long life that gets steadily worse, leading to its inevitable end. The two debate philosophy, morality, and theology, and it seems as if the story will lead to the inevitable question of whether White will get Black to realize that the Bible is mostly made-up bunk or whether Black will get White to convert. Instead, McCarthy finds a third option, one that somehow skirts both of these possible endings and finds a way to be true to the characters. It’s not a “happy” ending, per se, but it is a true ending, one that doesn’t give in to the artifice of the two-people-talking-in-a-room construct, even if it veers dangerously close to doing so.
Jones directed the film, and while he makes some odd choices here and there, it’s surprising how well he does in the confines of one room. Considering much of the play consists of two guys sitting at a table and talking, Jones is necessarily limited in shot choices, but he never lets the editing rhythm grow too predictable. At first, he shoots everything as though we’re viewing the actors via the proscenium arch of the stage, keeping everything so we’re facing the table from the theoretical audience. Then, at one point, he slowly works his way around the table, through cuts between camera angles, until we’re facing the table from the OTHER side, thus reversing the positions of Jones and Jackson, even though neither has moved, shifting the power dynamic subtly. This shouldn’t work. (If I’m remembering my textbooks correctly, it breaks one of the ironclad rules of classical filmmaking.) But somehow, it does, underlining the uncertainty of the moment. Some of the other direction and blocking can grow a bit too cute for its own good—Jones sends his character to lie down on a couch while Jackson sits behind him in a chair and asks about his family—but, all in all, Jones does a good job of making the piece cinematic without calling too much attention to himself.
Because, as it should be, the attraction here stems from the words and the actors. Jones and Jackson are both magnificent, imbuing characters that could very easily be read as stereotypes (the world-weary professor who doesn’t believe in God, the soulful black man who’s wiser than you’d expect) with a kind of purpose and life. (It also helps that the end of the script calls into question everything we think we know about the two, though to elaborate would be spoiling.) There’s every chance this thing just wouldn’t work without two actors of this caliber. It doesn’t have a great deal of narrative arc, and the ideas in it aren’t THAT fresh. But McCarthy can write stunningly terse dialogue that says more between its lines than most dramatists could say in whole monologues, and Jones and Jackson get their teeth into this writing and make it sing.
And, at the end, it’s McCarthy who makes all of this work as well as it does, even when every choice he makes seems to be working against him. There’s no real story here, just two men talking in a room. Indeed, when McCarthy tries to force the hand of his story late in the work, it makes for what’s ultimately the weakest part. He’s also not terribly good at convincing viewers as to the idea that White would voluntarily stay in this room with this man for the hour-and-a-half he does. (The play runs in real time, so I assume that’s how long it takes.) And the characters are more archetypes than anything else, and that’s if we’re being charitable. But McCarthy’s view of the world is so bracing, so cold, so dark, that the only way to explore those dark places IS with archetypes, with people who can carry lanterns to stand out against the gloom (as suggested in the famous final monologue from No Country For Old Men, delivered, happily enough, by Jones in the film, in what might be the actor’s finest moment on screen). There’s never much hope in McCarthy, but there is a kind of faith in breaking things down to basic components and figuring out how they work. It’s hard to call The Sunset Limited a hopeful work, but as it ends, in a moment of apocalyptic furor contained entirely to one apartment, it’s hard not to see a single point of light gleaming in the utter darkness.