Review: The Sunset Limited

Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Screenplay: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 90 mins


There are very few living American authors as prolific and important as Cormac McCarthy. Notoriously private yet famously curious, McCarthy has had a career that has ranged nearly five decades, yet throughout the years he has subjected himself to only a tiny handful of interviews, while making himself extremely accessible to those who work at the Santa Fe Institute, a science research center where he has his own office (and is considered “resident faculty”) and spends much of his time studying the sciences and conversing with intellectuals. Until his recognition with the National Book Award for his brutal 1992 romantic western All the Pretty Horses, he was mostly a well-kept secret among literary snobs, but it wouldn’t be until his Pulitzer-winning and Oprah-approved The Road that he would reach serious widespread appeal and acclaim. The rest has been history as McCarthy, now in his late-seventies, is enjoying more success than he could have ever imagined and his works keep attracting the eye of Hollywood’s talent – and the latest adaptation of his work, The Sunset Limited (which he actually adapted for the screen himself), might be the most interesting adaptation of his work yet.

The Sunset Limited has only one set piece. It has only two actors. It has only one continuous conversation that plays out over the course of ninety minutes, yet when those ninety minutes end, you will wonder why the conversation was cut so short. The story begins with two nameless men, a evangelical African American ex-convict (Jackson) and a white atheist professor (Jones). Early on in their conversation, we learn that the ex-convict, whose New York City apartment the two are now at, has just saved the professor from committing suicide on a train platform. The remainder of the film, we watch the two as they discuss and debate God, life, death, and the justification of the professor’s suicide.

The film relies solely on the brilliantly theatrical performances of two extremely talented acting veterans and, more importantly, the writing by a real master of dialogue. It will come to no surprise to those who watch it that McCarthy’s original publication was subtitled “A Novel in Dramatic Form.” For those who have read any McCarthy, the tone and some of the discussion will be familiar, but the execution in The Sunset Limited is masterful. Written only in 2006, the discussions between these two polar opposites seem to be a culmination of everything McCarthy has distinguished concerning mankind over his long life, playing out right there on the screen for us to watch as we battle with the questions being discussed ourselves. For those who enjoy McCarthy’s writing and adaptations or philosophical, dialogue-driven films such as The Man from Earth (our review), this will be right up your alley – and it is bound to end up on many best-of lists come the end of the year.

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David Brook
Guest

Sounds cool, I really liked 3 Burials. With a glowing review like that too I’m gagging for it to come over the pond.

rot
Guest

will be watching this tonight, will report back.

rot
Guest

Loved it. I agree that I never wanted this to end, 90 minutes went in a flash. Incendies is still my favorite film this year but this is a solid second. They both grapple with complex philosophical issues, but in very different ways. I love how Black keeps saying he is trying to find the right words to fix him; it is about sparring with words, but, at least how I read the ending, it is about the futility of that, and how it relies more on things you feel directly.

Jandy, as a christian you would probably be quite interested in this, to see how faith stacks up to reason.

Jonathan, as you are well read I presume you have read Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov? The chapters called Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor is my favorite piece of writing, period. The Sunset Limited is Grand Inquisitor-lite, it is the same debate but, no disrespect to McCarthy, what Dostoevsky does with the debate takes it to a whole new level of sophistication. It cemented my opinions on religion and reason long ago. But Sunset Limited is a modern one-act play that in its own right is fucking awesome. I loved, loved, loved it. 5/5 for me as well.

It is very well written, had me laughing at times, had me thinking at others, but also visually I found it surprisingly rich, given it is one room. Also Tommy Lee Jones is wicked in this, and Samuel Jackson is in full-on Tarantino dialogue chewing mode. However much I enjoy Tarantino’s dialogue, something like this shows his limitations. McCarthy makes the language sing in this, it has a style and beat to it, but it also SAYS something, it is not mere ornament.

great movie, thanks Jonathan for bringing it to my attention. I feel like reading some new McCarthy now… what do you recommend? All The Pretty Horses? btw, have you seen Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming where two of the characters have a book club and discuss that book? Hilarious.

rot
Guest

this is the sort of movie that after I have finished watching it I want to replay it immediately. Truly my kind of film. Like you said, Jonathan, if you like Man From Earth, but more so, My Dinner with Andre, this is definitely your bag.

rot
Guest

Will read The Crossing next. Before or right after Ballard’s Concrete Island (inspired by the news of the Brad Anderson adaptation)

Roy P
Guest

I think I’ve seen all the Cormac adaptations now besides All The Pretty Horses, never read a book though. I’d like to read that or Child of God soon. I’m scared to watch ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, IMDb + critics don’t say good things. but then again then I can never trust those bastards

but yea, this movie is fucking great. I probably prefer it to No Country, probably not The Road though. I love them all. i already want to watch this soon again, hopefully a DVD comes out. if not, download will do.

Jonathan
Guest

Roy, your best bet is to stay far away from All the Pretty Horses. I wrote about the mess that it turned out to be way back in April of 2008. The original cut was over three hours long, but the Weinstein’s absolutely butchered the film it was supposed to be – at least according to Billy Bob Thornton and Matt Damon. I still hold out hope that we might one day see the original cut, just to see if maybe it is as great at they play it up to be. Until then, don’t bother. Just read the book.

Andrew James
Admin

Yeah I’d like to see that cut of All the Pretty Horses as well. Actually, I’d really like to see it. But Jonathan’s right, as it stands it’s a boring piece of messiness.

rot
Guest

ugh, this is so frustrating, it really is one of the best things I saw too but no one else has seen it. Carnage is amateur hour next to this one room play.

Jim Laczkowski
Guest

It’s a rather interesting coincidence that I brought this up on the latest Cinecast after rewatching it earlier this week. It’s definitely one of my favorites of last year and can’t wait for this to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray! Couldn’t agree more with you about Carnage being rather underwhelming in comparison.

Andrew James
Admin

Just saw it last night…

I’m gonna have to get on more with HBO films. The trailers before this gem a of a film really looked fantastic. Even just from the snippets. With The Sunset Limited following those snippets, I am more on board than ever!

Not a whole lot in here that I haven’t pondered or discussed with others before, but the characters made the questions and answers that much more intriguing, understanding their back stories.

The set is awesome! Great sounds, lighting and believe it or not a lot of depth and movement. It was pretty dynamic for as small as it was.

My only beef would be some of the poetic/wrote dialogue near the end and the constant, “I should leave” garbage. But that’s pretty nit-picky stuff.

90 minutes seems to go by in about 15. Mesmerizing and amazing.

Thanks Jonathan!

Jim Laczkowski
Guest

Yeah, the “I should leave” stuff is the only thing that felt repetitive and unnecessary, but other than that, I think it’s damn-near perfect and exactly what I want from a theatrical adaptation. Powerful stuff. Can’t wait to hear a full review, Andrew. Glad you finally got to see it!

Jonathan
Guest

I just watched this again today, and Good Lord… what an amazing film. Incredible writing. Incredible acting. Wow.