'The Sunset Limited': How a Great Debate Can Make a Lousy Movie

Cormac McCarthy's writing shines, but its his conception that holds back The Sunset Limited.

The Sunset Limited

Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson
Length: 90 minutes
Studio: HBO Films, The Javelina Film Company, Professor Productions
Year: 2011
Distributor: HBO
Release date: 2012-02-07

Converting plays into movies is always a tricky process. Directors and writers seem to get stuck on the stage production’s best qualities: clever dialogue, quality acting, overt sets, etc. Barring a few legitimate successes (A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), most adaptations end up falling cinematically short. Either the direction is too simple and straightforward with blatant metaphorical shots (i.e., Doubt) or the story just doesn’t transition well to film.

It’s the latter that describes Tommy Lee Jones’ third directorial effort, The Sunset Limited. The veteran actor sidesteps many of the pitfalls mentioned above by embracing the limitations of the genre. There are plenty of long takes, allowing the actors to breathe (also a trademark of actors-turned-directors). Both Jones and Samuel L. Jackson take full advantage, too – each deserve many an accolade for commanding the screen when there is literally nothing else to watch (the film takes place entirely in a single room, mostly around one small kitchen table).

Yet none of what the characters say is as enthralling as the actors who play them. Cormac McCarthy, yes, the same Cormac McCarthy who wrote No Country For Old Men and The Road, has crafted a brilliant writing exercise. You can imagine the assignment – write a story where two characters exist in a room for a full 90 minutes. He chose to make one black and one white, but he doesn’t focus on race-relations. Instead he uses the two colors as a metaphor for the complexity of how we choose to live our lives and, sometimes, how we choose to die.

I don’t want to give too much away – after all, the story is all that exists for entertainment. So let’s just say The Sunset Limited is about a rather unhealthy debate done with an almost impossible amount of grace. It’s intellectualism vs. spiritualism. It’s optimism vs. pessimism. It’s innocence vs. corruption. Each character takes a side on each of these issues, but McCarthy constructs Black and White (names are never mentioned, but this is how each character was billed) so they occasionally cross-over to the other side, even if it’s only slightly, briefly, or unwillingly.

Yet as well as McCarthy made them feel like real people, the result feels like the most clearly argued high school debate session of all time. It’s a movie about morals, but it’s not really a movie at all. McCarthy didn’t think it was a play, let alone a movie. On the cover of his stage play, McCarthy wrote “a novel in dramatic form”. Yes, this is more accurate than calling it a straightforward play, I find it difficult to believe The Sunset Limited would be a novel, either.

It’s difficult to even discuss at length because it’s such a minor work. It’s done by a masterful writer. Truly. McCarthy is a living legend, and even in this small context he shows us why. I just don’t feel it deserves the attention of this much iteration. A book, a play, a movie – how many formats does it need? Jones and Jackson are fantastic, yes, but we already knew that and these characters aren’t exactly a stretch for either of them. I’m sure they enjoyed doing it, especially Jones, who gets the juiciest lines.

It’s just not enough to justify viewing. This would make a great reel for up-and-coming actors, and a terrific treatment for its writer. Yet everyone involved here is already well established. Well, maybe not Jones the director, but his past work has been more challenging than this (though he does make the movie as beautiful as it could possibly be). Jones touches on his directorial choices in more specific detail on the Blu-ray’s commentary track. Clearly, the man enjoys his new role behind the camera. He talks about light levels, framing, and other technical aspects. Jackson talks to McCarthy a bit, and McCarthy talks about his writing process.

Die-hard fans of the men might find something to enjoy here, but for a movie existing solely through its dialogue, a commentary track talking over the movie feels counterintuitive. The four-minute making-of doc, the disc’s only other special feature, is brisk and uninformative. There are a few interesting behind-the-scenes shots, but nothing too new. The commentary holds much more information, even if its medium isn’t the most accessible.

In the commentary track, McCarthy introduces himself as “the playwright”. He still sees it as a play, even when he’s being asked to talk about the movie. Is it a problem? Perhaps, but it’s a problem inherent in the creation, in the honesty of McCarthy’s perception of his own work.


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