It is always a trick to adapt theater to a feature film. Easier to do so for television, though that's probably a gross overstatement. HBO might be the best place to do it; they harbor independent film. Even trickier, maintaining a swift and watchable pace with only two actors and heavy religious dialog. Thankfully, Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cormac McCarthy have no problem with this. The Sunset Limited is engaging, thought-provoking, and sincere.
Of course, being a McCarthy work, there is a sense of boundless eternity that is tinkered with throughout, and the ending is more of a truce than anything else, but this is usually so of his writing. Things happen, we talk about why, and then we go home. It doesn't matter which side wins, just so long as each side is heard.
More after the cut --
These characters, and only these two characters, are our film. They have no names, and are known only by their skin color. Tommy Lee Jones is White, and Sam Jackson is Black. White is an aged, world-weary, and cold college professor. Black is a poor ex-convict who discovered God and has unshakable faith. White is also an atheist. Our stage is set, and the beautifully dialog is all but written. The most important part of the film, however, and where the "divine debate" begins is how exactly these two drastically different characters even crossed paths. It was at the subway. And White was about to commit suicide by jumping in front of the oncoming Sunset Limited. He fell against Black. And there we have it.
All before the film even starts.
Probably the most interesting thing about the film has nothing to do with what's being said, though that certainly holds interest. Nor is it the layered and thick performances from Jones and Jackson. I think the most fascinating aspect of the film is the sound design, and the use of train sounds throughout. When the dialog is tense, or when there's a hefty monologue in need of some background noise, or when things get too close to comfort between Black and White, there is always the presence of an oncoming train. Maybe to indicate that the end is always near. Maybe, inversely, to indicate that the beginning is just as close. After all, if it weren't for White's attempted end, he wouldn't have found this new beginning. It all started with a train.
The performances, as stated, are exemplary. Jones and Jackson play off of each other as if they were reciting Shakespeare (they might as well be) for a packed theater. Of course, it's just two men, a cup of coffee, and the fly-on-the-wall viewer.
I don't want to go too much into the dialog or what happens in the play, as most reviews have done so far, but I want to point out this - as much as the film is strictly about these two characters, the viewer is addressed and is as important to the proceedings as either Black or White. Without the viewer, there isn't a play - Jones recognizes that and includes us in very subtle ways (the sound design, some fourth-wall moments where the characters talk directly facing the camera). We're a silent participant in their theological/philosophical discussion. The film ends with a unique mixture of hope and dread, and signifies much. One review for Variety stated that the play is "less My Dinner With Andre than 'night, Mother", and I think that's fairly accurate.
We're left with a bit of a homework assignment from McCarthy, a question posed by one of the two characters . Basically, "this is what it is. Now, and think about this, is this okay?"
I'm still not sure.