By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; C08
Verbose, two-character stage plays should hardly ever be brought before the camera, page-for-page, as originally written. It can be stultifying to watch a movie that looks and sounds too much like there should be a rolled-up Playbill in your fist.
But HBO's "The Sunset Limited" - faithfully adapted from Cormac McCarthy's 2006 play and directed by its co-star, Tommy Lee Jones - more than overcomes the challenge of getting a satisfying piece of theater to work on a TV screen.
Still, be warned: What you have here is two men (Jones and Samuel L. Jackson) in a small apartment arguing for 90 minutes about the existence of God, a subject and a discussion many of us (believers and non) do what we can to avoid.
Yet, on the simple strength of McCarthy's talent for dialogue (a hallmark of his highly regarded novels), "The Sunset Limited" moves along at a beautiful and surprisingly thought-provoking clip.
Jackson and Jones portray characters that the script refers to as "Black" and "White." As Black, working-class Jackson has apparently just prevented ivory-tower academic White from jumping in front of an oncoming train (hence, the Sunset Limited). Black brings White back to his tenement apartment above the tracks, makes coffee and gently interrogates White about his well-being. Which leads to the question of why White had decided to kill himself. Which leads to a very long and very deep theological discussion that eddies out in luxuriously written tangents.
Black, an ex-con, launches into his personal salvation story and no small amount of Bible thumping, which White views as a lot of grandstanding, blind faith. For most of "The Sunset Limited," Jackson leans heavily on the "Pulp Fiction"-style of righteously streetwise delivery that has defined his acting career. Black tries to poke holes in White's steadfast atheism, and it's not long before Jackson is overdoing it. He's pulled back in by McCarthy, who also wrote this version's screenplay. It makes it all deliciously, dialectically melodious.
The bigger revelation here is Jones, in total sync with McCarthy's words, bringing an understated, heavy-sigh sadness to the role of White. His burden of disbelief feels more real than Black's insistence on a higher power. Early on, "The Sunset Limited" faintly suggests that Black is some sort of celestial presence, as if sent by God to investigate White's worthiness for the afterlife. White keeps asking to leave Black's apartment, but Black won't let him go, on the pretense that White might head back to the station to leap in front of another train.
This lends the movie a feeling of purgatorial entrapment. The apartment is perhaps some sort of waiting room for wayward souls, in which White must pass a theological test. Maybe White is already dead. Maybe Black is Saint Peter at the gate.
McCarthy is not so obvious as to write "The Sunset Limited" this way, which means that even after 90 minutes the unfinished argument between White and Black feels inconclusive and unsatisfying. Like many of McCarthy's novels, it ends in a poetic, speculative, existential truce.
"The Sunset Limited" embarks on a conversation that our noisy, contentious, fast-wired world seems reluctant to have, lest anyone get too offended: Is there a God? And if so, does he give a fig about you and me? And if there isn't a God, can we live with that?
The Sunset Limited (92 minutes) airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO