'The Sunset Limited': Is Tommy Lee Jones' HBO film the greatest Cormac McCarthy adaptation?

Sunset-LimitedImage Credit: Dawn Jones/HBO“Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.”

John Locke could have been describing Tommy Lee Jones’ new HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s relentless 2006 play, The Sunset Limited. If you think that’s a reductive reading, check the script. Jones’ suicidal college professor is simply named White, while his savior, a man of faith played by Samuel L. Jackson (and a spiritual cousin to Jules Winnfield), is called Black. Essentially a 90-minute conversation in a Washington Heights tenement taking place in the immediate aftermath of White’s suicide attempt at a subway station, The Sunset Limited plays like a talky condensation of McCarthy’s great theme: How do we create meaningful lives in a chaotic world where God is silent and death is inescapable? But instead of a Western, Southern Gothic, or post-apocalyptic novel, he gave as a verbose, urban-set play, something Bergman would like (if Uncle Ingmar had had an interest in anyone but the haute bourgeoisie).

It’s fascinating to see the conversation between Jones and Jackson ebb and flow like a game of verbal ping-pong, one holding the intellectual high ground one moment, the other the next—My Dinner With Andre as a game of philosophical brinksmanship. Jones’ timorous atheist runs a whole emotional gauntlet from initial humiliation and despair to smug self-assuredness, and man of faith Jackson somewhat the reverse. If The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada didn’t already convince you that the man can direct, Jones’ take on Sunset Limited proves his directorial skill. Instead of opening up McCarthy’s play, he embraces its claustrophobia, focusing on little sensual details like the flexing of a hand, swirling coffee in a mug, an orange peel on a counter-top, a trumpet’s muted honk wafting through the walls. Jones’ professor has forgotten that it’s these little details that really make life worth living, and so, like ze tiger in ze zoo in Werner Herzog’s Madeline, he thinks death is his only release. And to McCarthy’s credit, he doesn’t ever let the professor see the light. Maybe, like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, he just needs to see Duck Soup again to go on living.

Where do you think The Sunset Limited falls on the McCarthy Meter of Cinematic Excellence? Just okay like The Road or an outright masterpiece like No Country for Old Men? I clearly vote for the latter. To help get you thinking, though, we assembled a list of Sunset Limited’s best lines:

McCarthy channeling Tarantino:

“I’m just studying the ways of professors.”

Channeling Charlie Kaufman:

“I ain’t got an original thought in my head. If it ain’t got the scent of divinity to it, I ain’t interested in it.”

Channeling Left Bank existential dread:

“The things I believed in no longer exist. It’s foolish to pretend they do. Western civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys of Dachau, and I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now.”

Channeling the ultra-violence of Blood Meridian:

“I reached out and got ahold of this table leg, and it come off in my hand just as easy. Had this long screw stickin’ out the end of it. And I went a wailin’ on that nigger’s head. And I ain’t quit. I ain’t quit. Till you couldn’t tell it was a head no more. That screw was stickin’ in his head and I had to put my foot on him to pull it out.”

Channeling the ending to The Road:

“I think whatever truth is wrote in the pages of this book is wrote on the human heart too and was wrote there a long time ago and will be wrote there a long time hence.”

Channeling Will Ferrell’s grace from Talladega Nights:

“Lord, we thank you for this food and the many blessings we have received from your hand. We thank you for the life of the professor you have returned to us and ask that you look after him because we need him. I don’t know why we need him, I just know we do.”

Channeling Travis Bickle:

“This place is a moral leper colony.”

Channeling himself:

“I sure do miss the music.”

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Comments (136 total) Add your comment
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  • Joshua Montague

    Tommy Lee Jones’ is a gifted director. Plus, both Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones portrayed their characters beautifully. Felt as though I were watching a live debate.

    • Larry David

      It sounds too artsy for me. I’d rather see Tommy Lee back chasing fugitives – now that’s a role!

      • Noel E. PARMENTEL jr

        Is this THE Larry David?Please advise.

    • Color Me Impressed

      I hate how everyone always praises everything to do with Cormac McCarthy, just because he’s so d*mn cynical! Mad Men, The Sopranos, No Country for Old Men, why are the only works of fiction that earn critical nowadays all so cynical?

      • Color Me Impressed

        *critical praise, sorry

      • Rob

        Ummm, because all the great artists in history has recognized that human existence is brutal. Shakesepeare (Hamlet? Lear?, Milton, Sophocles? Sorry to burst your bubble, but life isn’t all Care Bears and rainbows.

      • adrianS

        am flipping seeing what’s coming on tonite, thought i’d look at some comments..which helped in my decision to watch.
        only writing to say to rob: good point, but learn some grammar first… ‘great artists…has’? come on man…’artists’ HAVE whereas ‘an artist’ HAS

      • Will

        All cynical works are popular because there is an infatuation in the human soul that longs to be told the truth. The truth being we live a sad existence that no one truly confronts in real life. Though in a play or work a character can confront it head on, and seeing the projected outcome and feeling like you’ve finally been lifted from your throne of lies and deceit is a damn good feeling.

      • Paul

        I read Sunset Limited a couple of years ago, and did appreciate its existential qualities. I have not yet seen the film, though I plan to when I have the time. As for Color Me Impressed’s comment about Cormac McCarthy’s cynicism: Praise for McCarthy is not due to his cynicism, if that’s what you want to call his take on the world. Praise for him is due to his exceptional writing ability. I’ve read all his books; his latest ones are not his best, in my opinion. Read his novel Blood Meridian and you’ll understand why his gets mentioned in the same breath as Melville, Faulkner and even Shakespeare.

      • Guest

        Weltschmerz

  • brian

    Brilliant. Just brilliant.

    • Lily

      Agree. Amazing!!! Loved it.

  • MCS

    So glad Samuel L. Jackson was in this as Black. When I first read the play years ago, the character came to life in my mind as Jackson. Seeing him perform it was captivating – my exact imagining of the story unfolding as someone else’s vision.

  • rResa asman

    great.

  • Vince

    YAWN!

    • Tony

      Go back to sleep. Wake up and hope there is an action movie in your near future.

      • Vince

        If you don’t like my yawn its too bad.
        I’m the same age as Jackson and so I don’t need to see depressing sad shows like this one.

      • DTO

        Well, then, go google some pics of puppy dogs and kittens, Vince!

      • brownp

        I’m old too, Vince, but I think that is one reason I enjoyed it. I have lived long enough to have been both characters on occasion, and can relate to this continuing struggle. I’m with DTO…what do you want to see, life with the opportunity to reflect and form new ideas or just watch “The Golden Girls” and long for the days of big shoulder pads? Seriously, give it a watch. We older people have a choice. We can get old and childlike or live in the moment and learn something new everyday.

        The day after watching I took my first train since 1958, and guess what it was “The Sunset Limited”.

    • Fred

      Yaaaaawn too!

  • Dean

    Saw it, loved it. People should actually watch it before they bash it. It was brilliant.

    • cas

      so true! it was brilliant!

  • shamballa

    Another brilliant movie that in the first few minutes you know that you’re going to need to see this several times to get all there is to get from it! And it was only a few weeks ago I was so awestruck by “Inception!” And here is yet another brilliant movie!! Keep bringing them on!!!

  • Don

    Wow! Just got through watching it. Blew me away. If “the sunset limited” doesn’t win an award for “best”, in every category, they should just stop giving awards. But I found it incredibly depressing that the professor’s points of view were so compelling. The light and warmth cannot defeat the dark and cold? Whew!! Have a nice day!

    • Jim Wilcox

      It seems irrational that you say that something cannot defeat nothing.Light is something darkness merely the absence of it.Warmth is something, cold the absence of it. Evil proves the existance of good,not a true statement conversly.Is T.L. Jones a disciple of Nietzche or a critic? White did not state fact only opinion. I was dissappointed that black did not use the logical argument against this devil. There exists one you know. Jn. 1:4-5

      • clark

        saying your disappointed about the character only using opinion to put forth their view point and then quoting the bible does not help you in your argument, it only digs the yourself into a hole. The movie was great and white puts forth questions/viewpoints that religion can not answer without circling around and not actually answering with any real substance

    • Evelyn

      I don’t really think it was about light or dark “defeating” the other. I’ve watched it three times now, and the message I’m getting is that it’s more about what we owe. What do we owed each other? God? Life? And what does each of these owe us? This is the most intelligent, thought-provoking thing I’ve seen in a long time. Absolutely rivoting!!

    • Zeke

      Compelling? No. The professor is in a trap of his own making. In his quest to be intellectually superior to everyone else, he has arrived at the conclusion that the smartest vision of existence is that it’s pointless. Now he must either accept that further existence is pointless, or admit that his reasoning and intellect may not be superior to every else. After all, he is a professor, which is an intellectually competitive occupation by its very nature.

  • Deidra

    Loved it from beginning to end. Can’t wait to watch it again!

  • Matt

    I really enjoyed the film.
    I hope you’re aware that Herzog’s Madeline that you mentioned was just a spoof……

  • Mookie

    I loved it! I was great work by both actors. It exceeded my expectations.

  • Tony

    Simply the most thougt provoking 90 minutes of film I’ve viewed on the debate of atheism. No matter what side Black or White if you don’t question your views either way then go back to sleep.

  • Larry

    I just watched the film by accident. It was shocking to see anything that deep on TV. I loved it and everyone involved in making it, and putting it on TV, has my thanks. I have often thought about the questions raised in the film, but renewal and rebirth always seem more promising than being dead. I mean that is so final, why not just keep living in an ever more enjoyable and elightened way…if you even can live after death.

    • Rebecca

      Nothing happens by accident…I was surprised to see such a great film on TV with two amazing actors..Man;s reasoning is imperfect, but God’s Word is perfect..Read it..you won’t be sorry.

  • Kyle

    Incredibly deep, and very well directed. I’m definitely going to watch it again when I’m not half asleep! Jones’ tirade at the end was one of the most powerful monologues I’ve ever heard, and the emotion they each displayed during it was incredible. Mark my words, this is an award winner.

  • Suttree

    It was great, but did you expect? Two great actors, a great writer, a talented director.

    • Suttree

      but what did you expect. . .

      • sherri alberts

        This is is fascinating piece of work.It grabs you from the first sentence to the last word.It makes you think about how close all of us are to completely given up on life.Then on the other hand having life to hold on to because it offers so much.

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