Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are confined to a single room in The Sunset Limited, but this film version of Cormac McCarthy’s play distills the same questions that explode in action in his best-known novels and the movies made from them. Just as No Country for Old Men can be seen as a parable of good and evil set in a contemporary gun-slinging West, and The Road projects issues of faith and responsibility across a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the two characters who sit and talk in a shabby New York apartment here deal with moral issues of light and dark straight out of Milton.
Jones plays a professor who has tried to jump on the subway tracks that morning; Jackson is the workman who saves him and brings him back to his apartment. (One clue that McCarthy is more interested in metaphor than realism: Jackson’s character calls the subway the Sunset Limited, the name of a cross-country train.) As Jackson’s deeply religious character struggles to convince the professor should live, he tells his own story of violence, prison and redemption. Jones’ character insists that he has been let down by culture and civilization; in a world shadowed by Dachau, why go on?
The credits call Jones’ character White and Jackson’s Black, but (as in the play) they are nameless throughout the film. And those names have less to do with race than the stark division between their views. They might as well be called Optimist and Pessimist.
“You see everything in black and white,” the professor says, and the workman answers, “It is black and white.” McCarthy, of course, sees that those opposites are simply the battle lines, not the answers to pressing questions about life or death.
Jackson, so familiar as an action star and an all-around cool guy, is almost unrecognizable here, balding and gray, his character by turns poetic and homespun. Jones has the more sedate part, played with thorough naturalism. Jones’ bigger role is as the film’s faithful director, and he keeps the piece moving without any gimmicks. Through the day the men argue, they eat, eventually each has an angry outburst. But this spiritually- minded work never becomes preachy.
The Sunset Limited premiered in 2006 at Steppenwolf in Chicago, followed by an Off-Broadway run. And although the published version calls it “a Novel in Dramatic Form,” its closest formal model is Sartre’s No Exit, another play more often read than produced, in which characters bat around existential questions.
The piece is talky. There aren’t artists many who can turn thought-provoking abstractions into dynamic drama, but McCarthy - along with the peerless writing and directing here - does.
The Sunset Limited premieres on HBO Saturday at 9 ET.