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Sometimes a play needs to be a play — seen and heard live, witnessed as if eavesdropping on another world, mulled over on the walk out of the theater and on the way home.
Which is to say that sometimes filming a stage play does not work for television. That watching it as a television series asks of it things the play can not deliver (and is not supposed to deliver). Hence, HBO’s movie of Cormac McCarthy’s “novel in dramatic form,” The Sunset Limited, doesn’t work.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson as Black and Tommy Lee Jones as White, The Sunset Limited is basically a battle between faith and faithlessness, of God and nihilism. That it is a wordy, non-stop debate at times ponderous and at times agitated stamps it immediately as more high-brow two-man play than dramatic movie. Attempts to bring in race and class and ponder the significance of ignorance as bliss and intellectual cultural pursuits as the ultimate pathway to a dark answer — life is meaningless — tends to bog down in the mix.
Trying to bring it all to life is Jackson, who plays Black, a former convict turned true-believer when God spoke to him on his deathbed. One day in New York, Black saves Jones’ White from leaping in front of the speeding Sunset Limited. White is a mopey professor whose intellectual pursuits and studying of the culture have gone from rewarding to revealing in the worst kind of way.
Everything is rotten, is essentially White’s belief. He claims to love no one or be best friends with anyone. He does not believe in God. He sees no point in trying to find happiness because in the end, it’s all a ruse. We are inherently unhappy and we’ll die.
Black takes him back to his nearly barren apartment in a low-rent neighborhood and begins a philosophical narrative about what White did and why. During this whole early part of the 90-plus minute Sunset Limited, Jackson is in control. This is a good thing. His oratory skills enliven the McCormac’s words and make you forget that The Sunset Limited as a filmed play feels as claustrophobic as a very bad bottle episode on television. Despite the clever swooping camera work that makes one square room seem bigger and more visually interesting than it is, Jackson’s vocal theatrics are necessary to keep any semblance of interest. Jones doesn’t help matters in the early going by mostly offering up meek, mousey answers to Black’s constant questioning. Periodically White switches course and perks up to change the direction of the dialog.
But it’s not until the end of The Sunset Limited that Jones is able wake the White character for an impressive, passionately bleak lecture on nihilism — a rant so effective it essentially crushes the goals and the hopes of Black, who slumps down at the end, hoping God will give him a sign.
By then, however, it’s too late. All the early signs were right — this is an exercise in verbal gymnastics and no matter how famous the two leads are, it’s difficult to embrace their characters, because they have that air of stagey self-importance, as if the goal was to be viewed from seats in the distance, not welcomed into your living room.
Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com.
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