The Sunset Limited (2011)

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones

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Based on a Cormac McCarthy play, The Sunset Limited is a single conversation between two people that takes place completely within one small room.  The characters are unnamed, and they are played by Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, two actors I’m certain will get their big break sooner or later.

Because this is a 90 minute conversation, there’s going to be a lot of talking, and you just know they’re going to talk about the big picture, elaborating on conflicting world views to perpetuate the tension typically needed to sustain a feature-length film.  Jackson is a born again Christian, and Jones is nihilist.  They met earlier that night when Jones tries to throw himself in front of a subway train, and Jackson saved his life.

Jackson is there to keep Jones talking.  He doesn’t want the tired man to go back out there and try to kill himself again, so his goal is just to keep Jones present and engaged.  He asks him about his life, family, career, etc. and Jones’ responses to all of these questions are rather terse.  I mean, they’re as terse as they can be considering he needs to talk for the structure of the movie to hold up.

Part of the problem I had with The Sunset Limited is simply that I didn’t believe these two characters would share so many words.  Jones seems to be a man of few words, and Jackson’s character, I imagine, would be of the same ilk.  Jackson brings a recognizable performative quality to the movie, making the character, at his most alive, feel almost inseparable from the ones he’s played in many a Tarantino movie.  Still, it didn’t quite feel in line with this character, a former inmate who lives comfortably in relative poverty and seems comfortable with his outlook on life.

When the two characters get to talking about worldview, religion and whatnot, the Jones character becomes a little more active.  Rather than simply reacting to Jackson’s questions, Jones now has something to say.  For much of the film we learn more about Jackson in his attempt to help Jones, but the last thirty or so minutes of the film turn the tables and let Jones monologue his way to the finish line.

Basically the story is this: Jackson believes in God, the afterlife and what have you.  He is comfortable in his faith, and Jones is a firm atheist who believes our own awareness of our mortality and the futility of it all means we should just kill ourselves as soon as possible.

Like any good conversation movie there has to be this kind of conflict.  There has to be a reason the characters are bothering to discuss in such eloquent terms their fundamental outlooks on life.  Some movies (Linklater’s Before trilogy) don’t necessarily have this same kind of conflict, but there is still a motivation, a reason the characters are talking.  In the case of The Sunset Limited that motivation is conflicting.

The movie ends when Jones gets fed up and leaves, ending the conversation.  Up until then he only seems to stay as long as he does because he’s a little amused, in a condescending way, by Jackson’s faith.  Similarly, Jackson is amused by Jones’ nihilism.  For most of the movie this feels like real life, albeit as seen through a hyperrealistic lens.

These are two characters who see things differently, and though they are willing to listen to each other, each remains firm in his worldview.  Isn’t that our lives?  We see people making decisions we wouldn’t, and we can recognize the relative value of each other’s life decisions.  Something works for someone else but not for myself and vice versa.

I think this is enough for a movie, for this movie.  Each character represents one way of looking at the world, and the point of the story is just the fact that they’re having the conversation.  It’s the space in between that matters, the willingness to engage with each other and at least the illusion that they’re both flexible enough to change.

It’s like listening to two lawyers battle it out in court.  We’re the jury, so we listen to each side make strong cases, assuming it’s not a open and closed case, and then we decide what we believe.

The problem I had with this movie is that it takes sides.  When one character is undertaking a particularly long, meaningful monologue, the camera will frame them in a close up, and the music will creep in to emphasize what they say.  I don’t like it.  Stop it.  This takes away from any semblance of realism and makes the film frustratingly objective in its subjectivity.  Instead of letting us be subjective and pick what we want from an objective presentation of a discussion, the film becomes subjective and frames its own opinion as fact, making it objective.  Or maybe that’s syntactically nonsense, but I think the semantics remain the same.

The use of music and the cinematography, to me, betrayed the script.  The words should be powerful enough, and I certainly found the performances to be as well, so just frame it nicely and don’t screw it up.  The extra stylistic choices felt too heavy-handed, particularly as we’re supposed to believe Jones’ final speech has any meaningful effect on Jackson.

The story ends with Jones talking the talk about how nothing matters, and all he longs for is the sweet release of death.  Okay.  None of what he says is surprising considering what we know about him, and while he might say it with some bravado, I felt little in regards to the emotion the movie clearly wants us to feel.  To make matters worse, the Jackson character is very affected by what Jones has to say, and I never bought that a man so devout, so committed to his own faith, could be shaken so easily.  Why was Jackson, who saw the man attempt suicide, remain so calm and comfortable throughout the film but now just because Jones can put together a long string of sentences he falters?

The use of music would be like participating in a jury and watching as the lawyers hit play on a boom box as they spoke or brought with them their respective hype men to emphasize each damning point they made.  Just let the lawyers speak.  It would also be as if one of the lawyers admitted publicly that the other made a good point.  No, get that out of there.  Just let them speak, stay strong, and let us be active in the story, coming up with our own points and joining in the discussion.

The Sunset Limited is a discussion film that insists on keeping us out of it.  The movie is worth the watch, I suppose (it’s also free on Amazon Prime), but it feels a little too taken with itself, particularly with the Jones character (Jones also directed the movie).  At times it feels too shiny, too much bark and no bite.  The characters speak well enough, but we’re meant to be more impressed with them then we are.  They are interesting enough characters, ones I would like to follow around for a movie, but they’re characters I want to see behave.  I want to see how they move, the choices they make, etc.  I’m much less interested in how they talk, partially because the mere fact that they’re staying more than ten words at a time felt to me like an undermining of the characters themselves.  It’s like you in everyday life, hanging out with people you’re comfortable with (so comfortable you don’t feel the need to talk) versus you in a job interview.

Up Next: The Great Dictator (1940), No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Drunken Angel (1948)

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