There are actors who are so interesting, so entertaining in whatever they do, that people say they could be satisfied just watching them sit in a room and talk for a whole movie.
Fans of Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson will get to test that theory with The Sunset Limited, a dark, challenging drama adapted from a play by Cormac McCarthy (The Road). The entire 90 minutes is spent in a run-down New York City apartment where characters known only as White (Jones) and Black (Jackson) debate the meaning of life, take opposing views on the existence of God, and, in the end, ponder whether any of our actions truly have consequences.
These are men who had met only hours before, during an offscreen incident in which Black saved White’s life, after the latter had attempted to throw himself in front of the subway train. Black brings the man back to his apartment with the intent of showing him the value of life, but all White can do is fixate on how hopeless and futile the universe is and plead for Black to let him go.
Race isn’t the only thing separating them. Black is a working-class ex-convict who has become a devout Christian, while White is an upper-crust college professor who believes God is nothing but a crutch for the weak-minded. Their curiosity about each other, in addition to Black’s rather insistent form of hospitality, keep them together.
Jones, who also directed, adds no cinematic flourishes to McCarthy’s spare screenplay, content to let the poetic, often despairing words speak for themselves. No attempt is made to hide the fact that this is essentially a filmed play.
As for the actors, one gets the sense that despite the heavy subject matter, Jackson and Jones thrill to each penetrating monologue, exhilarated by the chance to go toe-to-toe for the first time since 2000’s Rules of Engagement. They can’t quite make all the theatrical dialogue sound natural, but it at least comes off as truthful to their characters. In lesser hands, The Sunset Limited would likely be a tragic bore, but watching these old pros get to really show what they can do makes the gloom and doom approach something near the sublime.
The Sunset Limited premieres Feb. 12 on HBO.