It don’t matter if you’re Black or White.
Director Tommy Lee Jones brings us into a run-down Manhattan apartment with his HBO adaptation of the 2006 Cormac McCarthy play The Sunset Limited. The single set, two man cast setup requires that the viewer sit down and concentrate. And concentration is the key here as we observe two nameless characters, dubbed only “Black” and “White”, embarking on a 90 minute debate on fluffy, light-hearted fare like… i) the afterlife, ii) suicide, iii) purpose of art and iv) faith.
McCarthy has become a literary celebrity in recent years thanks to the movie adaptations of his books, No Country for Old Men and The Road. Anyone familiar with this work will not be too surprised to learn that The Sunset Limited isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.
It comes to light that White (Jones) has just been prevented from jumping in front of the Sunset Limited train by Black (Samuel L. Jackson). White is a lonely, friendless professor and flag-bearing athiest. Black is an ex-con, janitor and born-again Christian living in squalor.
Transporting a play to the small (or big) screen is always tough. Do you just set up a single camera and a few microphones and let the actors run for 90 minutes ala Hitchcock’s legendary “Rope”? Or is it better to take the “cinematic approach”, with multiple angles and takes. Jones opts for the latter, but truth be told there’s not a whole lot you can do in a small one-bedroom apartment that won’t distract the viewer from the bigger questions we’re being asked. The cramped room does allow for some pretty special long takes and close-ups of two of Hollywood’s most famous faces, allowing us to look deep into their eyes and try to see if we any truth in their convictions.
White’s argument for suicide was that intellectual development brings depression and cynicism. This is in stark contrast to Black’s unquestionable faith and willingness to follow the simple Christian life. In the end their debate is easy to define – it’s two men testing each other’s faith. One man believes in God, one man believes in absolutely nothing.
While it is all very thought-provoking and encourages the viewer to switch allegiances as the conversation unravels, after a while it just turns into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. This certainly isn’t Waiting for Godot though and begins to really drag before the climactic, some would say “#winning”, monologue.
The film doesn’t flow very well, with both actors often appearing forced and wooden. Some of the blame must lie with McCarthy and his lack of experience in writing film dialogue. Consider the fact that the screenplays for his two previous adaptations, The Road (Joe Penhall) and No Country for Old Men (The Coen brothers), were both adapted from his books.
In short, it’s impossible to watch The Sunset Limited and not feel something. It’s up to you whether that something is going to be boredom, emptiness, hope or vindication…