Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: The Sunset Limited

The setting: A dingy apartment in a not-particularly nice neighborhood in New York City.  The characters: Two men--one black, one white--with diametrically opposed views on life, sitting at a dinner table.  The plot:  They have an argument.
The Sunset Limited is a film made for HBO, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and starring Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.  They are the only two people we ever see.  The script is written by Cormac McCarthy, arguably our greatest living writer, adapting his own play.  It is about the fundamental questions of life, of religion, of purpose, and despite never leaving the one-room apartment, it is one of the most thrilling films of the year.
Jones plays a professor (referred to in the credits simply as White) who is suicidally depressed, and indeed has just come from attempting to throw himself in front of a train.  Jackson plays the Bible-thumping ex-con (called Black) who prevented Jones from jumping and has brought him back to his apartment in an attempt to convince him not to do it again.  The two men are as opposite as they can possibly be: pessimist and optimist, atheist and born-again Christian.  One wants to die, the other to live.  Jones is not only an atheist, but a man who sees the entire world as evil worthless, perceiving no meaning or hope anywhere, and wallowing in his despair.  Jackson is not only a believer, but a strongly evangelical one who apparently preaches to just about anyone he meets.  Even the small heresies he admits to--a general disbelief in original sin, and a suggestion of the perfectability of man--emphasize his positive philosophy, differentiating him from fundamentalism or dogmatic Calvinism.  Jackson aims to prove to Jones that life is worth living, that he is loved by God, that the world is a place of beauty that ought to be valued.  You may think the deck is stacked pretty steep in his favor, but in truth the outcome is very much in doubt.  This is the battle for two men’s souls, and there’s no telling who will win.
Some argue that a one-location film like this can never be truly cinematic.  If by “cinematic” you mean wide vistas and lots of movement, that’s true.  But if what you mean is an absorbing film shot with intelligent, elegant use of the camera that  maintains interest and avoids visual fatigue, then this film is most certainly cinematic in the best sense.  It is certainly more cinematic than the similar (and also brilliant) My Dinner With Andre, where things are most chopped up into shot-reverse shots between two men talking at a restaurant.  Here there is more space around the two men, allowing both the camera and the characters more room to move.  The shots can shift from intimate back-and-forths to swooping, spinning movements that heighten the drama and excite the eyes.  (If I’m being perfectly honest, I’ll admit there were one or two shots which seemed awkwardly/distractingly pointed and noticeable, but that’s probably just me because I think about these things.)  The use of color and light is also highly creative, using oranges and shadowed greens to suggest a trashy ghetto but still evoke some beauty and vibrancy.  The soundtrack is filled with offscreen voices and sound effects, constantly emphasizing the world outside and serving to both isolate the characters and situate them in an identifiable location from which they will leave at the end of the night.  This is not Jones’ first time around the block directing, and he demonstrates ample skill in the staging of the whole production.
Nevertheless, this is still a film of a stage play, and the ultimate author has to be Cormac McCarthy.  I have read McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, and about two thirds of Cites of the Plain.  I plan to have all of the latter, Outer Dark, The Road, and Blood Meridian read by the end of next year.  The Sunset Limited seems to me to be concerned with the ultimate theme of all his work: the problem of evil.  How do we deal with a world so irreparably violent and corrupt?  Each of his characters attempts to deal with this fact in their own way, crafting their own codes and beliefs to protect themselves, but it’s a dangerous world and their codes might not be enough.  I do not know his personal beliefs (he gives few interviews), but it seems like it would be hard to write Sunset Limited if he were not a Christian at some point in his life.  Based on his other writings, I would be very surprised if he still was.
The film is thrilling because it does two things movies rarely do: It tells without showing, forcing us to imagine instead of receiving pictures straight through our eyes, and it features a sustained argument about actual issues, allowing us to evaluate each character’s position on its own merits.  In most films the rule is show, don’t tell, and that is generally a good idea for movies with plot--but a movie featuring only people talking has its own kind of openness, a scope not limited by a budget but as boundless as thought and conversation can be.  Also in most films, arguments are predetermined and short, featuring one character who is absolutely right and another who is stupid for not listening to him.  Or else, the characters argue only about themselves, and what they say reveals psychology and motivation, serving the story but offering allowing the actual substance of the argument to dissipate in favor of character beats.  Even in something like 12 Angry Men the debate is really all about revealing the various hang-ups of the jury members.  Here, the characters’ personalities and back stories are certainly important, but their positions on the issues are even more so, and it’s intellectually stimulating to watch and listen in a way we almost never see.
Jones and Jackson are both among our finest actors, and here they give two of their very best performances, Jackson especially acting with more soul than he has in years.  These characters might have seemed overly schematic on the page, the stereotypes of “Black” being an ex-con who speaks in strong Afro-American dialect and is the more talkative, funny, and spiritual of the two, crushing down the debate and preventing the reader from relating.  On film, though, the two actors bring their characters to life, and the words pour out of their mouths with an enthusiasm and power not often matched.  While they debate, this little room is the center of the world, the only order amidst the chaos.  An epic battle is playing out, and it will determine whether or not the chaos is kept at bay for another hour.

Rating: 9/10 stars.

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