The Sunset Limited (2011), is brought to us by a trinity of American artists. Author, Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men (2007)), Director /Actor, Tommy Lee Jones, and Samuel L. Jackson in perhaps his most powerful role. The HBO Films presentation (now streaming on Amazon Prime and DVD) possibly, eclipses Beckets Waiting for Godot because of this films accessibility, and honest post-modern take on the eternal conundrum. McCarthy’s drama for Television Cinema was originally a play first produced in Chicago and then New York.
Throughout the film, we have ourselves shoe horned into a small ghetto apartment with an academic atheist and a blue collar black believer in Jesus Christ. White, the atheist has attempted suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. Black, the believer, has saved him. The film opens with the two of them across a table from each other. A Bible is in the center of the table. White has a lifelong academic skepticism that has carried him to the point he faces, that begins slowly, but leaps out before the film is over. Black, a former criminal and penitent murder, has a surety from an experiential encounter with his deity. White, while at a distinct disadvantage to the higher ground his adversary has, because he has saved White’s life, begins an interrogation of Black, demanding “jail house stories” from Black. We begin to see a compelling Modernist conceit, which gives way to a dramatic answer that is only despair.
“I yearn for the darkness,” White says. “I pray for death. Real Death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I’ve known in life I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate horror.”
Black who was initially in control of the dialogue holds onto what he has learned from the Bible, black preachers, and his sobriety and a changed life. He bows to the mystery while exhorting White and God to consider a change for White. Yet Black acknowledges White his autonomy without ever giving an inch toward the possibility that White might be right. White repeatedly wants to leave and is entreated over and over again by Black to stay knowing he may go again to try the Sunset limited.
Atheists/Agnostics may applaud White’s, determination to remain deterministic and his embrace of despair; but Christians will applaud the 2,000 year old Gospel delivered by Jackson. Superb editing and camera work, gripping dialogue by one of America’s greatest living authors and two of the finest actors in America, transforms a claustrophobic apartment and an age-old philosophical and religious argument into an action film.