Few constructs are more intoxicating to actors — and potentially stultifying to audiences — than the two-character play, a showcase for grand monologues but also potential claustrophobia. If you have to be trapped in a confined space, though, it’s hard to think of two more compelling actors to spend 90 minutes with than Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, with the latter doubling as producer-director in adapting Cormac McCarthy’s play “The Sunset Limited.” The exercise isn’t entirely successful, but still proves eminently watchable, indeed almost hypnotic — something only HBO, frankly, would likely bring to the screen in such cerebral, uncompromising form.
Essentially an excuse to explore life’s Big Questions through these two characters, all the action takes place in a single room, after a God-fearing ex-con (Jackson) has saved a professor (Jones) about to commit suicide by leaping in front of a subway train, the Sunset Limited. What ensues is a debate about God, despair, and finally what might make life worth living — or enduring.
Given McCarthy’s dour resume (from “The Road” to “No Country for Old Men”), there’s not a tremendous amount of hope in these exchanges. And while the nameless combatants seem reasonably well matched, they are a study in contrasts — Jones defeated, world-weary and staring into the “howling void”; Jackson on a mission to save him, having found a sense of purpose through religion, calling the Bible “a guide for the ignorant and sick at heart.”
Although these two extraordinarily busy actors starred opposite each other a decade ago in “Rules of Engagement,” their paths haven’t crossed that frequently on film, and the simple pleasure of watching them spar will surely make other performers salivate even though their banter inevitably feels stagey in places — exhibiting McCarthy’s hands working through this existential crisis.
Still, there are few bastions on television to find this sort of unrestrained discussion, or (beyond Bill Maher’s HBO show) someone who dares to dismiss religious faith as silly superstition.
Shot in Santa Fe over 12 days, Jones and his collaborators do what they can to keep the movie visually interesting, alternating between two-shots and close-ups. Ultimately, though, the real allure here is seeing a play with what amounts to the best seat in the house, able to zoom in on their faces — and soak in the grandeur of Jackson’s trademark fire-and-brimstone rants.
In terms of tone and presentation, “Sunset Limited’s” closest kin would be less “My Dinner With Andre” than “‘night, Mother,” another play turned movie with suicide as a theme.
In TV terms, that’s hardly a prescription for blockbuster ratings. But if HBO’s movies serve the higher purpose of decorating the pay service with accolades, while rewarding viewers with challenging subject matter unfettered by commercial imperatives, then they have, indeed, boarded the right train.