TV Review: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson Ride ‘The Sunset Limited’

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CHICAGO – Three amazing talents converge on HBO this weekend for a ride on “The Sunset Limited,” an adaptation of a play about belief, faith, religion, science, and all the other deep issues that come to the surface when one considers the end of their life. It’s more complex, dark material from one of our best writers in this milieu (Cormac McCarthy of “No Country For Old Men” and “The Road”) and it’s vividly realized by two of the best living actors in Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Despite some flaws, there’s no good reason to miss “The Sunset Limited” if you subscribe to HBO. TV Rating: 4.0/5.0
TV Rating: 4.0/5.0

First, a warning — “The Sunset Limited” is almost defiantly theatrical. It features two actors for its entire running time and the dialogue is undeniably that of the stage more than the screen. Even the minimal camerawork and sparse set would make clear to anyone who didn’t otherwise know that this was based on a play. If you’re one of those who like your films with more “cinematic” style than theatrical, this may not be the ride for you.

The Sunset Limited
The Sunset Limited
Photo credit: HBO

Being a former theater major who once fancied himself an actor and a director, pieces like “The Sunset Limited,” ones that break film or TV down to the core still so valued by the theatrical scene — character and language — have a special place in my heart. If one is willing to accept the fact that the piece would surely be even more powerful in a small theatre with the same actors, there is much to cherish and enjoy here. Some of the dialogue and banter seems a bit forced and unnatural, something that’s easier to take on a stage than a filmed room that demands a bit more realism, but watching two actors like Jones and Jackson devour McCarthy’s dialogue should be considered a gift, even if it’s not a perfect one.

The Sunset Limited
The Sunset Limited
Photo credit: HBO

Tommy Lee Jones directs, returning to the world of McCarthy after his excellent turn in “No Country For Old Men,” and the Oscar winner also stars as a college professor who has recently tried to jump in front of a subway train as the film opens. He sits at a table with the ex-con (Jackson) who saved his life, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. The two men are distinctly different — professor and con, devoutly faithful and intensely doubtful — and the film that unfolds is purely a conversation. In fact, when the play premiered, some correctly questioned whether or not it should be a play, calling it a poem in dramatic form. Naturally, those same criticisms and concerns are going to carry over to the TV movie.

And there’s something about the dialogue that feels even more staged in film than it does in a theater. When someone says, “I’m sorry but this whole idea of God is a load of crap” it has a different resonance in fiction, theater, or film. Does it sound a bit forced in the TV film version? Certainly. It takes a suspension of disbelief to think that two people would speak with the eloquence, self-awareness, and wit of Cormac McCarthy for 90 minutes, but we accept that in theater all the time. You just have to do so in a different medium to enjoy this ride.

Two people who clearly accepted and enjoyed the opportunity to speak the words of one of the best living writers were Jackson and Jones. The former plays up his street preacher sensibilities and the latter his world-weariness, but they both fit the parts perfectly. These roles play to their strengths and Jones the director wisely refuses to clutter his source, never opening it up beyond the run-down apartment in which it is set. Consequently, the piece takes on an existential tone not unlike “Waiting For Godot” or “Endgame.” With unnamed characters arguing about the existence of God, one starts to wonder if they’re more symbols than people.

The number of TV films a year that provoke comparisons to Samuel Beckett are pretty damn slim. “The Sunset Limited” is surely not a ride for everyone and you may tune out to the discussion after only a few minutes but those who like their Saturday night entertainment with a heavy dose of philosophy and those who merely enjoy watching two great actors do what they do so well should buy a ticket.

“The Sunset Limited” stars Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. It was written by Cormac McCarthy from his own play and directed by Jones. It debuts on HBO on Saturday, February 12th, 2011 at 8pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

kc0jqz's picture

Sunset Limited

I am pleased to hear Samuel Jackson is willing to work TV.

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