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HBO's 'Sunset Limited' Rises
March 15, 2011  | By Eric Gould
There is still time to see HBO's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2006 play debating faith and the existence of God. Starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, The Sunset Limitedis another dark masterwork by McCarthy, and a sterling showcase for Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, two veterans effortlessly at the top of their game in an unforgettable 90 minutes where existential nihilism and devout belief collide.

Bill Maher, interviewing T.C. Boyle a couple of weeks ago, cited him as the writer of our generation, and that's probably true, if only for his intellectual wit and unmatched power to churn out Class A material like rabbits in the spring. With McCarthy, author of All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men and The Road, it's a dead heat, given his unblinking look at the brutality of our world and the darkness that is borne within all of us.


The Sunset Limited starts with two characters at a table in a shabby tenement, introduced to us as Black (Jackson, as an uneducated ex-con, now a janitor) and White (Jones, as an unshaven, downtrodden professor). It soon becomes clear that Black has just intervened in White's attempted suicide on a subway platform, stopping him from hurling himself in front of a transcontinental train called The Sunset Limited. Black has brought him back to his apartment to gather himself. While White attempts to explain his choice, Black tries to shake his belief that killing himself is the only answer.

What becomes increasingly less clear is whether we're actually watching that, or, whether we're in some sort of metaphysical limbo where Black, as God's Bible-toting emissary, has intervened in the split-second of things -- arguing, cajoling, pleading with White to save himself, to seek salvation in his brother man, and find comfort in God. Is this White's moment to hear God speak?

Black's tenement, a dingy room done in careful detail by Merideth Boswell, Wendy Ozols-Barnes and Marisa Frantz, is the third character here. Its basin sink, peeling paint and rotting molding are expressive of the spare, last stop that White has arrived at. It's a nod to great claustrophobic one-room movies such as 12 Angry Men (1957) and Fail-Safe (1964), as the two men deliver McCarthy's stone simple words, slowly, building, and then often blooming with the musicality of the rolling, racking train that may seal White's fate.


In 90 minutes, Black's and White's thoughts unspool as to why God exists, or why He doesn't. In White's case, if He does, why has He abandoned man? In Black's, it's a steadfast trust in the Lord, even though he knows he doesn't understand everything in front of him. (Jackson, in his biblical quotations, tones it down quite a bit from his executioner's moral outrage in Pulp Fiction, but is just as genuine.)

It's in the final 20 minutes where things become critical, and they're well worth waiting for. When White says that he, himself, is "night in day's clothing," and that "Everything you do closes a door somewhere ahead of you. Finally there's only one door left," you believe him -- as much as you trust Black's steadfastness and comfort in the written word of God.

This ghost train will make you a believer. No matter whether you're with Black, or with White.

The Sunset Limited airs twice more on HBO2 -- late Tuesday night, March 22, at 1:05 a.m. ET, plus Wednesday, March 30 at 6:30 p.m. ET.

It's also available to HBO subscribers online via HBOGo.

(McCarthy's print and audio versions are available here.)


Marlark said:

While I believe no discussion of the existence of God can truly be Black and White, I cannot wait to see the shades of nuances within this production. Your review seems to harken back to the golden days of Playhouse 90 and those other black and white teleplays. Thanks for a great recommendation.

Comment posted on March 31, 2011 12:01 PM
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