Two guys and a room. Theatre doesn't get much simpler than that, at least if we're talking traditional theatre, in this case we are. We're talking about The Sunset Limited, the play by Cormac McCarthy and more specifically the movie Tommy Lee Jones made out of it. You could get deconstructive or avant-garde, but if we're talking straight theatre, two guys and a room is about as pure as it gets. Cormac McCarthy is a pretty simple guy so it makes a lot of sense that his one play should be so simple. He has a kindred spirit in actor/director Tommy Lee Jones. Jones' other film, the flooring The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, was supposed to be an adaptation of McCarthy's Blood Meridian but funding fell through. I'm ok with that because I wouldn't want anyone going into Blood Meridian with anything less than the most if you follow me. Plus Melquiades Estrada is too damn good. Jones has a simple style in his acting and directing and he's honed both in his old age. Shooting here in what I take to be that same 35 they shoot The Walking Dead and Mad Men in which somehow looks like Digital even though it's not, Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, his fellow occupant, make something out of almost nothing. Not that the script is almost nothing but it is so threadbare, so chilling in its simplicity, so dark, even if it is hella evocative. Jones and Jackson are in top form here, absolutely brilliant; Jones is a little more someone else than Jackson but there's just no shaking the baggage of his most iconic performances. But frankly it adds to the character. It helps him sell his life as a violent motherfucker who's seen the light.
It'd be easy to under and over praise the work and miss what's great about it. Evocative I think is the best thing I can say for the direction and the editing. Listening to Jackson selling McCarthy's americana-soaked anecdotes about his life before now, you don't just want to believe them, you do. You see the relics from his previous lives, the light from the sun shining through the living room window onto his drinking buddies, the kind of overexposed black and white of a filthy southern prison, something that can't be too different from the decrepit apartment they sit in relating their philosophies. I guess a word about the plot would be good, huh? Before the action begins a white college professor has tried to throw himself in front of a train but he accidentally landed in the arms of a black man who was on his way to work. Now the black man won't let the white man leave his apartment until he's convinced him life is worth living. Or anyway, that's how it seems, McCarthy has as much in the trick bag as either of his characters. Jones' direction loses nothing of its charm or sharpness in such a confined space with a fixed text to read from and rarely does this feel like a play. The dialogue always does in these situations (Rabbit Hole the most recent exception. Goddamn I love that movie); there's an unavoidable rhythm, we and the actors and everyone knows that they have to keep speaking because that's what happens in a play so the momentum is always there, sort of constantly reminding us that we're watching words from a page. But Jackson and Jones fight the inevitability and they win often.
Jones has help from his beautiful face, which appears to have been carved from the bones of some great elk. Has anyone aged quite so magnificently, does anyone else wear their years like Jones? He has this quietness, this almost gormless look throughout; he's been caught completely unawares by everything after his trying to kill himself, so everything else he hears is on borrowed time. And he certainly didn't expect to be in a dank apartment listening to Sam Jackson trying to convert him. Sam on the other hand has an energy that is impossible not to love once he gets going. It's why he's allowed to show up in bad films; he's one of the best even if there's no mistaking him for someone else. He may always be Sam Jackson, but sometimes a movie needs him. Sunset benefits from his larger-than-life attitude and his way with an anecdote. His "jailhouse stories" are a particular highlight. I was struck that he's just as effective in his quiet moments as his loud ones, though the loudest ones don't have any help. In his most quiet moments (there's a beautiful scene where he laments not having music to listen to for fear a junkie might steal his record player) Marco Beltrami's arrangements come in and take us off someplace else. We're deep in his memories in a place that must be simultaneously beautiful and darker even than the apartment we're in now. Jackson gets a lot of mileage out of just a few words, though the music is just so good that it's tough to imagine those little scenes without them. Self-reflection isn't in the character's nature; sure he reminisces a lot but mostly he lives in the moment, which is why Jones' character's unending darkness scares him so much. There wasn't a moment I wasn't entertained by their dance.
In fact the only thing that surprised me, and it shouldn't have considering I was listening to words written by Cormac McCarthy, was that McCarthy makes such a damning case against the guy who's much more likable. We spend so long being bludgeoned by his charm and goodwill that we don't even notice the tables being turned on him by the meek man across the table who shouldn't even be alive. When Jones finally unleashes his philosophy it stings just a touch of "this is the end of a play" but mostly Jones just swings so hard that I was totally enthralled. His voice, his face and his outlook are...well there's no room not to believe them. Jones has said that he finds acting fun and you can see the glee he was feeling here. To deliver this speech, to deliver something that puts a frown on a Sam Jackson character's face...I envy him greatly. But I digress. I started to think that McCarthy was selling us short a bit but the ending vindicates him a moment of doubt when we realize that neither man has been defeated. Though I was amazed at the last concession made by Jackson. Mostly though I was so stricken and moved by Jones telling us he longed for "darkness...silence...peace..." It actually comforted me a bit to hear someone hurdling towards something so terrifying who was able to rationalize it, glorify it even. McCarthy's darkness is a special kind and here he outdid himself. It must be said, too, that this is probably the funniest thing McCarthy's ever written. Little jokes crop up all over the place that help us deal with the inherent sadness that pervades every inch of this piece. "Was he dead?" "I hope so, we buried him." This is an essential work of American fiction, maybe his most quintessentially American and Jones does a hell of a job translating it. The 90 minutes flew by...kinda like a downtown train...