'The Sunset Limited': Is Tommy Lee Jones' HBO film the greatest Cormac McCarthy adaptation?
Image Credit: Dawn Jones/HBO“Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.”
John Locke could have been describing Tommy Lee Jones’ new HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s relentless 2006 play, The Sunset Limited. If you think that’s a reductive reading, check the script. Jones’ suicidal college professor is simply named White, while his savior, a man of faith played by Samuel L. Jackson (and a spiritual cousin to Jules Winnfield), is called Black. Essentially a 90-minute conversation in a Washington Heights tenement taking place in the immediate aftermath of White’s suicide attempt at a subway station, The Sunset Limited plays like a talky condensation of McCarthy’s great theme: How do we create meaningful lives in a chaotic world where God is silent and death is inescapable? But instead of a Western, Southern Gothic, or post-apocalyptic novel, he gave as a verbose, urban-set play, something Bergman would like (if Uncle Ingmar had had an interest in anyone but the haute bourgeoisie).
It’s fascinating to see the conversation between Jones and Jackson ebb and flow like a game of verbal ping-pong, one holding the intellectual high ground one moment, the other the next—My Dinner With Andre as a game of philosophical brinksmanship. Jones’ timorous atheist runs a whole emotional gauntlet from initial humiliation and despair to smug self-assuredness, and man of faith Jackson somewhat the reverse. If The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada didn’t already convince you that the man can direct, Jones’ take on Sunset Limited proves his directorial skill. Instead of opening up McCarthy’s play, he embraces its claustrophobia, focusing on little sensual details like the flexing of a hand, swirling coffee in a mug, an orange peel on a counter-top, a trumpet’s muted honk wafting through the walls. Jones’ professor has forgotten that it’s these little details that really make life worth living, and so, like ze tiger in ze zoo in Werner Herzog’s Madeline, he thinks death is his only release. And to McCarthy’s credit, he doesn’t ever let the professor see the light. Maybe, like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, he just needs to see Duck Soup again to go on living.
Where do you think The Sunset Limited falls on the McCarthy Meter of Cinematic Excellence? Just okay like The Road or an outright masterpiece like No Country for Old Men? I clearly vote for the latter. To help get you thinking, though, we assembled a list of Sunset Limited’s best lines:
McCarthy channeling Tarantino:
“I’m just studying the ways of professors.”
Channeling Charlie Kaufman:
“I ain’t got an original thought in my head. If it ain’t got the scent of divinity to it, I ain’t interested in it.”
Channeling Left Bank existential dread:
“The things I believed in no longer exist. It’s foolish to pretend they do. Western civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys of Dachau, and I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now.”
Channeling the ultra-violence of Blood Meridian:
“I reached out and got ahold of this table leg, and it come off in my hand just as easy. Had this long screw stickin’ out the end of it. And I went a wailin’ on that nigger’s head. And I ain’t quit. I ain’t quit. Till you couldn’t tell it was a head no more. That screw was stickin’ in his head and I had to put my foot on him to pull it out.”
Channeling the ending to The Road:
“I think whatever truth is wrote in the pages of this book is wrote on the human heart too and was wrote there a long time ago and will be wrote there a long time hence.”
Channeling Will Ferrell’s grace from Talladega Nights:
“Lord, we thank you for this food and the many blessings we have received from your hand. We thank you for the life of the professor you have returned to us and ask that you look after him because we need him. I don’t know why we need him, I just know we do.”
Channeling Travis Bickle:
“This place is a moral leper colony.”
“I sure do miss the music.”