Old School

If you happen to watch HBO (you can send that check any time now, fellas) then chances are you’ve seen the new film adaptation of The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy.

I could fill a lot of space here by going over plot and characters, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to encourage anyone who’s not familiar with the work to bop over to The Sunset Limited’s Wikipedia entry and, yes, spend even more of your precious time on the Internet. (The Wiki page doesn’t take long to read, and it has a good synopsis of all the pertinent junk.)

The movie stars Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones and nobody else. That’s right. It’s just Sam and Tommy and 90 minutes of solid speechifying. Doesn’t that sound like a blast?

Well, I’ve watched it about three times. Jackson’s performance rates as one of his best, I think, and that alone is a great pleasure.

Jones’ portrayal of a suicidal college professor seems uneven at times. I’m not sure if that’s because he was wearing three hats on the project (actor, director and producer) or because he plays the character as a man who’s slipping in and out of shock.

If the former is the case, well, good for you, TLJ. I think you did a fine job behind the camera, and kudos for squeezing the bucks out of HBO. If it’s the latter, that’s cool, too. It’s a brave choice, and Jones the actor is forceful enough when it counts.

The film has generated a fair amount of critical hoo-ha. The snarkier comments I’ve read fault The Sunset Limited for its lack of action, as if any movie featuring these two actors is somehow incomplete without a fistfight or gunplay.

This is nonsense, of course.

Let’s be real. The Sunset Limited is, above all, a bunch of great sentences by Cormac McCarthy. They are sentences I wish I had written. (Isn’t that why we love this or that writer, because they write sentences we wish we’d written?)

McCarthy deserves his reputation as an ornery, iconoclastic pontificator. He’s pushy and preachy and proud of it. (It’s a consonance party! And you’re invited!)

Like any preacher worth his or her salt, he’s good at scaring the hell out of you. McCarthy’s most memorable characters, for me, are Judge Holden in Blood Meridian and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, world-class berserkers, natural-born killers, sowers of apocalypse. They are remorseless and virtually unstoppable. When you factor in McCarthy’s prose, it’s a heady combination.

Over the decades, McCarthy has perfected an eerie hybrid of King James English and modernist smack. At times, he employs the literary equivalent of the long tracking shot, evoking beauty and terror with an icy omniscience.

No monstrous human character appears in The Sunset Limited. The two men facing off here are sympathetic figures, and Mr. Jackson and Mr. Jones deserve a significant amount of credit for that, I think.

The antagonist looming over the scene is death. The Sunset Limited is a good old-fashioned Socratic dialogue about mortality and the limitations of human understanding.

Nobody does dread like McCarthy, but the movie provides several surprisingly funny moments. At one point, the two sit down for a bowl of soup. It’s a simple, life-affirming interlude in what is, on the whole, a tragic and unsettling story.

I think there’s plenty of action. Large ideas whiz around the room. No blood is spilled, but both men’s words are rife with violence and anger. Our knowledge that this is, in fact, a life or death situation keeps the tension level cranked.

The Sunset Limited will probably not find a large audience. It’s too talky, too ambitious, too – duck and cover, people – philosophical.

I think most viewers will shrug, vaguely hoping, perhaps, that TLJ will soon be back on a horse, where he belongs. (Jones, by the way, graduated cum laude from Harvard, and wrote his senior thesis on Flannery O’Connor.)

Others will feel burned by the author. There’s no Hollywood payoff, no catharsis. All McCarthy leaves us with are questions of the sort few people ask these days, and an uneasy feeling about what’s coming down the tracks.
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John Hicks is working the problem. Failure is not an option.

John Hicks lives outside the city limits, where eagles dare.

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