By Scott Martin
The Sunset Limited, USA, 2011
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
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 is maintaining a swift and watchable pace with only two actors and heavy religious dialogue. Thankfully, Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cormac McCarthy have no problem with this. The Sunset Limited is engaging, thought-provoking, and sincere.
These characters, and only these two characters, are our film. They have no names, and are known only by their skin color: Jones is White and 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 an atheist.
Our stage is set, and the beautiful dialogue 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, where 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 this film is the sound design, and the use of train sounds throughout. When the dialogue is tense, or when there’s a hefty monologue in need of some background noise, or when things get too close for 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 dialogue 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 this and includes us in very subtle ways, such as the sound design and some fourth-wall moments in which the characters speak 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.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com