Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On DVD: "The Sunset Limited"

The Sunset Limited begins after its inciting action: an attempted suicide. One man (Tommy Lee Jones) tried to toss himself in front of a subway train; another (Samuel L. Jackson) stopped him. That moment is never seen, and, in the opening minutes of The Sunset Limited, it is only mentioned in passing, coded terms. The man who stopped it (credited only as "Black") brings the man he saved ("White") back to his run-down apartment. They sit at his table, across from each other, opposites not only in skin color, but in disposition: Jones's character is an atheist professor, Jackson's a convict reformed by his Evangelical faith. They face each other, and they talk--a flurry of words, ideas, accusations, confessions, dodges. They talk for an hour and half, just the two of them, a pair of men in one unforgiving location.

If all of this sounds horribly schematic and inverted and intolerable, keep these two facts in mind: The Sunset Limited is written by the great Cormac McCarthy (the novelist who penned No Country for Old Men, The Road, and All The Pretty Horses, among other works), and it is directed by Tommy Lee Jones, as direct and no-nonsense a filmmaker as he is an actor (his 2006 film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is one of the best movies you haven't seen). McCarthy's script is adapted from his stage work, and indeed, there's nothing terribly "cinematic" about it; it's basically a filmed play, confined to the single set, Jones's occasional attempts to leave as strained and unlikely as those of Polanski's Carnage. But if it is less than innovative cinema, it works as great theatre does: as a vehicle for big themes and powerful words, masterfully delivered by towering actors.

The relationship between the two men is established early on: Jackson's character is the gregarious one, the storyteller, imbued with good cheer and earthy humor, while Jones is the cynic, the critic, the introvert. But Jones's searing performance grasps the contradictions of the character; there's such confidence in his words, but there's an urgency in his voice and a haunted desperation in his eyes. His line readings are often comically wry, but we can sense (even before we know why he's there) that his smarm is a front. Few actors can do nothing as rivetingly as Jones--what comes off as paycheck laziness in his lesser films (like Double Jeopardy or his previous collaboration with Jackson, Rules of Engagement) has, in a role like this, a hypnotic economy. He brings to the character the sense of a life led; all of his age, wisdom, and experience are brought to bear, and when he finally allows that internal weakness to seep up to the surface, it's utterly wrenching.

Jackson has possibly an even more difficult role, taxed with the responsibility of making us believe that he could keep this stranger in his apartment, and (at several key points) keep him talking. Though McCarthy and Jones tinker with the notion of Jackson as confidant--an early exchange finds Jones laid down on Jackson's couch, talking about his relationship with his father, as Jackson sits upright behind, creating the classic patient/therapist composition--it quickly becomes clear that Jones's taciturn nature requires Jackson to provide the engine for the conversation. He shows no hesitation to do so, even when Jones's prodding for a "jailhouse story" prompts a confession he'd rather not make. It's a harrowing scene, McCarthy's brutal language paired with the power of an accomplished actor at his most passionate. It's not just a to-the-rafters turn, though. Jackson follows the dips and surges of McCarthy's narrative, which varies in tempo and intensity for the film's 90 minutes; watch the charming way he keeps calling Jones "honey" ("That's just ol' South talk," he assures him. "It means you're among friends"), or how he goes quiet when Jones wants to know the worst thing he's done. This is a bravura performance, and Jackson's finest work in years.

The unnamed characters of The Sunset Limited talk circles around each other, touching on several of the more compelling Big Ideas: faith, race, class, moral responsibility, the futility of existence, and (perhaps the key question, and one that all of the others dovetail out of) the difference between a believer and a doubter. It's not a "problem play," and as such, it doesn't contain any easy solutions; it ends with a howl of anguish rather than a ray of enlightenment. Its ending doesn't cheat. Neither does what came before.

"The Sunset Limited" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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