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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Sunset Limited: Blood On the Tracks

How often do you watch anything on television that challenges your mind with its depth? Last night I watched HBO's The Sunset Limited. Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are the only two characters in the film, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's play examining the nature of belief. The entire film features a dramatic dialogue, a debate, between these two men, whom McCarthy calls simply Black and White.

Jackson's character, Black, a convicted murderer, has just saved Jones' character, White, from taking a dive in front of the Sunset Limited train. He has brought White, whom he refers to as Professor, back to his modest apartment in the hopes of persuading him not to try it again. He tries to accomplish this by offering the angry, suffering man the prospect of eternal life, which is precisely what White is trying to avoid.

"If I thought that in death I would meet the people I've known in life, I don't know what I'd do," he says at one point. "That would be the ultimate horror."

At one point, Black asks White, "What you got against being happy?"

"Suffering and human destiny is the same thing," replies White.

The rapid, sparring dialogue in the film requires total concentration from the viewer, so much so that the words become a little exhausting at times, but the challenge to understand completely the characters' reasoning makes for memorable, thought-provoking entertainment. The Sunset Limited resembles theater more than standard film.

Action movie fans will merely moan and reach for the remote. Yet, those who seek unique form and style will find plenty to whet their thematic appetites.The film features camera movement and direct conversation. "This play is made of language,” said Jones, during the recent Winter TV Tour in Hollywood. “That’s the job description: Language. And it’s a happy occasion for me, and I was happy to see Sam take such joy in working with language, car-crash-free language.”

Mary McNamera of The Los Angeles Times condenses elements of the plot: "Jones' White, who once believed in the power of art, now believes in nothing but the ability of the Sunset Limited to provide him lasting silence and peace. His intellect has rendered him contemptuous and full of self-satisfied despair. Black, meanwhile, embraces Christian simplicity - his apartment is bare, he says, because if he owns anything, 'the junkies will just steal it,' and he admits that he doesn't have 'an original thought in my head,' that all he now knows and follows comes directly from the Bible." ('The Sunset Limited,' Premiering Saturday on HBO," February 10 2011)

Hank Stuever of The Washington Post writes, "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." ("HBO's 'Sunset Limited' Review: All Aboard the Theological Choo-choo," February 12 2011)

A review of  The Sunset Limited could spoil a potential viewer's experience by providing too much detail. Instead, the film is best understood by feasting eyes and ears on the product, then allowing adequate time for digestion. At worst, the viewer will feel overwhelmed by words that offer few straight directions but more than adequate intellectual maps. At best, once intrigued by characterization, the viewer will be quite happy to be wandering two different paths filled with uncertainty.


As aging Professor White argues against the overall metaphysical value of being alive when all hopes have been exhausted, Black takes the opposite view. Black is simple in his dialect, yet addresses wonderful complexities and paradoxes of Christian thought, his ideas of God's design wonderfully circular and avoidant of easy rhetoric. Is White justified in his quest for suicide?  Is Black correct in sustaining his frontal assault of questions about morality, redemption and love for one's fellow man? It seems White's soul may be at stake as well as Black's own spirituality.

When Tommy Lee Jones was asked what he believes the message is in The Sunset Limited, he thought about it and said: “I don’t think there is a message. The idea, it seems, is to make the biggest ideas in the history of the world entertaining and immediate. It would seem, therefore, that the questions become far more intriguing than the answers.”

Then he added: “You can never be certain of the answers.” (Nicole Laporte, "True Gruff," Newsweek, February 6 2011)

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