The only thing limited about HBO’s television movie The Sunset Limited is the setting. OK, I guess the costumes are, too. The entire hour and a half takes place in a sparse, single room of a small apartment in New York City. Two characters, listed merely in the credits as White and Black, discuss god and existence, as well as Black’s stint in prison and White’s empty life. It’s one continuous conversation, with no act breaks or time jumps.
But how fascinating! Apparently, just before the story begins, Black has rescued White from a suicide attempt. Black is keeping White talking in his apartment, presumably so that White doesn’t try again. As such, there is a subtext under laying everything that is going on. But that isn’t nearly as neat as the actual words being said. Black talks a lot more than White, but they get into stuff such as books, including the Bible, and the afterlife, that are just plain gripping. I haven’t seen a show that is so intense with such little action since In Treatment.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Black, and Tommy Lee Jones plays White. Besides the writer, they can take much credit for the success of the piece. Both show their chops, conveying a lot with just a little. They also makes the characters seem real and effortless. Not once during the show did anything they do take me out of the moment. I had to stop and remind myself that these were just two characters in the hands of veteran actors. They were both so authentic, really bringing to life the two distinct points of view.
A major component of the movie, taken from a play, is religion. Black is a devout Christian, converted during his time in prison serving a murder sentence. He lives a simple life devoted to Jesus. White is an intellectual aethist, shaped that way by his pursuit of academia (he is a college professor). But both are smart, and open to hearing the other, even though neither will be convinced of the other’s opinions. Nor do either one descend into stereotype. They hold personally chosen values, not ones spouted by a religious leader that they embraced. Jackson and Jones make you believe what their characters believe, and neither viewpoint comes out looking better than the other.
I expect awards will be heaped upon The Sunset Limited, and deservedly so. I will be surprised if it isn’t recognized. Just for the sheer drama of the debate, it deserves it. Check out The Sunset Limited during one of its many repeats on HBO in the cominc weeks.