Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: The Sunset Limited


There's nothing quite like the feeling when a movie comes along at exactly the right time to knock you over the head with its magnitude. I've had this one queued in the DVR for nearly a month, but I just got around to watching it tonight -- and I find it very interesting that I may very well have not been as receptive to it then as I am now.

I don't know if there's anything I can write that would do it justice, because I don't know if the movie is that good or if I just had a personal connection to it. Is this a recommendation? A tired, old so-called review? Some clumsy way to communicate something, but uncertain as to what that something is? I don't know. Some things don't really fit into a category.

The movie is "The Sunset Limited" and is an HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's two-character play. The characters, named only "Black" and "White," are played by Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed) -- I'll assume you can figure out who is playing who.

The entire play/movie is a conversation between the two and takes place in Black's dingy apartment in the New York ghetto, near a train station where White has just attempted to jump in front of a train (The Sunset Limited line specifically), and Black happened to be there to save his life.

Was it by chance that Black happened to be there? Was it divine intervention? Like the movie in its entirety, this is not clear, but the two begin an extraordinary and powerful discussion about humanity, the meaning behind our existence, faith, God and the afterlife.

Black is an ex-convict, who apparently has quite the personal relationship with Jesus -- and some pretty intense "jailhouse" stories -- while White is a college professor, hopelessly lost despite -- or perhaps more likely, because of -- his extensive education and finds the majority of Black's life-affirming, Bible-thumping diatribes to be exasperatingly nonsensical. But to casually label him as depressed or an atheist is to callously rob this character of the extraordinary depths of the anguish, darkness and emptiness that have driven him to this point.

Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson (HBO)
Here we must discuss the acting. Both are terrific, but Jones really stands out for me in this. Countering Jackson's upbeat, kind-hearted and optimistic outlook as his character remains nobly determined to help his guest see the light, Jones brings a tangible heaviness to his portrayal, a quiet and exhausted approach to the conversation behind dark eyes that are sunk deep into their bags. You know he hasn't slept for days. You know he's carried the burden he's carrying for years.

What clinched this movie for me is the shocking and unmistakable shift in both tone and power. For most of the film, Black is the dominant character. He's determined to save his guest's life, he's making him coffee, he's making him soup, he's initiating the entire discussion and he never wavers in his belief that he is right, he has God on his side, he is doing God's will and White will see the light.

But very quietly, darkness begins to take over, and the complete and utter despair that is inside White begins to emerge as he spews a chilling monologue that reveals his perception of the world and the futility of humanity. The use of lighting here is perfection and the words are frightening, the weight of which carries us to the end of the conversation, where we feel a palpable sense of transference, and we're witness to a poignant plea from one character that is undeniably relatable.

I found this movie to be a perfect adaptation of a dialogue-driven play -- where the theological conversation is truly compelling  and the end is of the satisfyingly unsatisfying variety that I'm so fond of.

Most importantly, it's a movie where you need to hit the bar immediately after to discuss, because there are a myriad of questions, interpretations and feelings that can be derived from its content. Who is the one really being tested here? What if White is already dead? What does the apartment signify? Who's better off, the believer or the non-believer? Why is faith a good thing? Or perhaps most chilling, the thought that at first lurks in the background before slowly and deliberately enveloping you no matter how hard you try to suppress it:

How disconcerted are you that you relate most closely to White? ...

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