I recently had the privelege of watching the HBO film The Sunset Limited, taken from a play written by one of the greatest living novelists, Cormac McCarthy. Both from a religious and an artistic standpoint, this film marks a significant offering to those hungry for well-produced work with meat to chew on. Stunningly acted by Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, and aptly directed by Tommy Lee Jones himself, The Sunset Limited provides memorable acting, clever writing, and competant, no-frills production work from all involved. True to its theatrical fashion, it’s 90 minutes in one room, complete with witty banter and soulful monologues. It’s a battle of two minds and hearts as doubts are unearthed and constancy vanished. But, aside from a few over-the-top aspects of character or overly pat scenarios or instances of suspended disbelief, the comparisons between this and classic or modern theater should end as easily as they begin. Sure, it nearly welcomes mental repaitulations of anything from O’Neill to Albee to Mamet, but one would be wise to take the film’s leaning on dramatic form with a grain of salt. Theater has always been a suitable domain for intellectual sparring and emotional catharsis, but I can’t recall seeing such an even-handed portrayal of people and concepts which could so easily be grouped into the cultural categories “liberal” and “conservative.” I find that The Sunset Limited is best viewed, and perhaps asks to be viewed, from another perspective: a religious one. Make no mistake; this film’s primary focus is spiritual. And it more than succeeds in doing what few films even seek to moderately hint at. Move over, Kirk Cameron. With this and No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy announces himself as perhaps the most important voice in modern American film when it comes to moral pondering and appropriate portraits of spirituality. And depending on your perspective of the qualifications to enter into such a category, The Sunset Limited may be among the most effective Christian films ever produced.
The set-up goes something like this: Tommy Lee Jones’s character (White) has attempted to hurl himself into a moving train. Samuel L. Jackson’s character (Black) sees him and stops him before he can kill himself. Black takes White back to his apartment, a literal hell-hole surrounded by junkies he tries to minister to. At this point, the film begins, and Black essentially attempts to convert White to Christianity. The film is about witnessing; it’s not merely implied but foregrounded. White is a rather bleak character. He listens to Black with the appropriate attention of someone who just saved his life (regardless of whether or not he wanted him to), but he is content to say, “You have your faith. I don’t share it. Let me be.” He is a well-educated professor, fully equipped with advanced vocabulary and sharp intellect to go head-to-head with his opponent. His heart is dark; his head is clouded with cynicism; he needs an answer but doesn’t want to look for one; he needs a fresh start but can’t muster the motivation to make it. He echoes Albert Finney’s character in Under the Volcano: “Hell is my natural habitat!” Black, on the other hand, for all of his preaching, is no saint. He’s had a sinful past and a jarring experience with God to shake him out of it. And not all of his beliefs are exactly “by the book.” But he’s not out for a win or a soul-count to take to heaven; he truly cares about White and those destroying their lives around him. While Jackson displays his trademark theatricality, and thoughts of Jules in Pulp Fiction are not far off, Black is a welcome Christian in film. He’s never condescended to and he has the depth of thinking that White does even if he fails to possess all of the words with which to express it. The film’s strength is that it never looks pejoratively on either the saint or the sinner. Neither White nor Black have the deck stacked against them in a game of mental superiority. Both display the universal human vulnerability behind the eyes which begs us to asks when we are most feaful to do so: “What if I’m wrong?”
It’s all leading to a conclusion, and we wonder who will “win.” Will Black’s faith take hold of White or will White corrupt Black with his deeply-held poison of depression? The ending is not exactly…well…black or white. It reaches climax in a way that such a scenario probably would in real life, if the set-up were ever achieved. Ultimately, Black fails to convert White. But he does not plunge into darkness or denounce God. He is simply bewildered as to why White would not choose to follow him. He feels betrayed and embarrassed that he was not given the right words to say. He is confused; he is perhaps doubtful; but he is never an apostate. To the end, both portrayals are as even-handed as they are in the beginning. As much as I’d hoped White would be shown the error of his ways, it was truly evocative to watch religious “failure” onscreen. Samuel L. Jackson’s final moments are heartbreaking, but they’re also realistic. We encounter such amazement every day. Why does evil seem to “win” in a battle of wits against good? Why do people who are literally dying for a saving answer reject the only one that will help them? Why isn’t it more…well, easy…to share our faith in a way that will give us some dim hope that the person will not walk away? Cormac McCarthy asks all of these questions without asking us to actually doubt the One in whose person we place our faith. Like Tommy Lee Jones at the end of No Country for Old Men, we are left with no choice but to shake our heads at evil’s seeming undettered prevailing. Justice will come one day, we think, but can we get an advance? Can we feel like we play some role in obstructing its reign? Like Jones’s character, we are not exactly giving up. We just don’t feel that we have what it takes to go head-to-head with pure evil and come out alive. Cormac might be two steps from the grave of nihilism, but he’s not quite there.
I can describe this film as closely as I’m able, but you really need to see it. It’s important; it’s provocative; and it wears its spirituality on its sleave. You might be more inclined toward a film that takes a side, but you’d be suprised at how much can be revealed from a distance. It features quick but contemplative dialogue delivered by two of our finest actors, and it causes you to think in a way that few films can. I knew that Cormac McCarthy dealth with morality and violence in his novels, but I never thought I would see such overt Christianity in a film adaptation of his. Here’s a film that’s not made by a Christian that never looks down on the Christian at its center. I hope that more films like this will be made. Just imagine what the industry would look like if this were more a norm than an exception.