The Sunset Limited is a play and film by Cormac McCarthy. I watched the film recently, and I thought it was provocative and curious. There’s not really that much to spoil, in fact I think there’s almost nothing except <SPOILER> that White leaves the apartment at the end of the film as the sun rises. </SPOILER> While the acting was good enough in moments of the movie, the timing in the film seemed a little off, a little rushed at parts. But all in all, an interesting experience
The movie is much like… A Dinner with Andre and The Man From Earth: closed room, dialogue centric movies that “intellectuals” enjoy (Personally I just find them interesting, but most people would say … ‘pretentious’; not that my awareness of it being pretentious makes it any less pretentious) . If you’re a diehard fan of The Expendables or The Fast and The Furious, this may not be a movie for you (Although the two might not be mutually exclusive.)
The premise is that two guys, White and Black, are sitting in Black’s apartment. The door is heavily bolted and deadlocked, and sparsely decorated. After some back and forth, we discover that Black has saved White from a suicide attempt by train. The Sunset Limited.
White [played by Tommy Lee Jones of MIB fame] is a professor and atheist, Black [Samuel L. Jackson] is a Christian ex-con, apparently a murderer. The repartee is interestingly paced, difficult to follow at points, but essentially revolve around God, happiness and the meaning of life, good and evil, and death.
Black is a believer. He believes that he is there for a reason, that the professor fell into his arms, that everything in his life revolves around the Bible, that everything in his mind and in his life comes from the Bible and nowhere else. Black believes that it is part of his duty to save White, to look out for his brother, he is TRYING – the opening line is “What am I supposed to do with you?” – salvation lies in his fellow man, especially those who don’t want to find God.
Black found God after he was involved in a graphically described ‘jailhouse’ fight , where he was injured and heard Jesus speaking to him while recovering. White describes it as “a story of how a fellow inmate became a cripple one-eyed halfwit so you could find god”. Despite all of White’s cynicism, Black demonstrates an acute awareness of his reaction to god, as if the response to being put in a “bag of tricks” (ie evangelical attempts) is familiar to him.
Black tells an amusing anecdote about alcoholics, he says that drinking is escape, that people just want to be loved by god. “They can’t get what they want so what they really don’t want, they can’t get enough of.” He asked – which makes more sense – to want a drink of whiskey or to want to be loved by god.
Knowledge is White’s god, it gives the illusion of being able to outwit the devil; the primacy of the intellect is what distinguishes us from rocks, but ironically enough, once we obtain enough intellect we are driven to perish; because the darker picture is always the right one.
White scoffs at the notion of happiness. He says there is no happiness in the world, especially for the educated. It is the human condition. The more you know, the more you realise that you’re essentially part of a “forced labour camp”, living in a world of futility. Black believes that White had simply walked down the wrong path, that he should abandon everything he had done up to this point, because it left him empty at the path of oblivion, that he had steadily formed his life around a cynical view of the world.
White says “suffering and human destiny are the same thing, each is a description of the other”, that humans are destined to be in pain. Black says that pain is what defines happiness. Personally, I thought White’s bitter response was somewhat lacking, logically. Humans are not destined to suffer, that is exactly what we work our lives to avoid. Maybe that was White’s argument, that our lives are spent avoiding suffering and pain, and in the end we all reach the same end point of death anyway.
Good and Evil and the meaning of life
Despite being a Christian, he doesn’t accept that people are tainted by original sin (ie we are all intrinsically evil). He says that people are good, and they end up bringing evil to themselves. Black compares people to mines, and says that we should find the gold at the bottom of the mine, a pure ore which keeps us alive. Black believes that man’s body is capable of being purely good, because Jesus existed in the form of a human. That people are capable of being good.
White complains about the place Black lives in, describes it as … a moral leper colony, he asks why Black continues to stay there, that “even god gives up at some point.”; he asks what the difference is, to god, between coming to a building that is spiritually and morally vacant and a building that is entirely uninhabited. He is questioning hope; it is intriguing that he has a notion of morality. He believes there to be right and wrong, but doesn’t see suicide as wrong.
Black says that the problem with White is that he believes that people should get what they deserve, and that most people deserve nothing. And to follow the Bible means to give love, even when they don’t deserve it. It is UNJUST to love and care for those who don’t deserve it.
Interestingly, when describing the Bible, Black says this – “I don’t think you gotta know this book exists at all. Whatever truth is written in this book, I believe is written on the human heart too and was wrote there a long time ago and will be wrote there a long time yet… this book is a guide for the ignorant and the sick of heart, a whole man wouldn’t need it at all.”
The value of the Bible, and any other literature for that matter, is as a cautionary tale, telling us to be careful. White says the reason why the Bible contains more about the wrong way to do things than the right way is because people are essentially evil, there are any number of “wrong” paths to go down, and only one right one. Whether White was alluding to the right one being death, or some other kind of righteousness, I’m not sure about.
Their conversation is peppered with the contumely “nigger”, which interestingly enough still seems to bother White, despite his nihilist attitude to life. It demonstrates the constraints of societal norms and education on White, the prison of his own mind formed through education and ‘civilisation’. Maybe. Black describes the notion of “believe” relative to “unbelief”. The believer arrives at his conclusion, draws from his one well; The unbeliever tries to destroy the well, to unravel the world. He’s saying that belief in untruth is better than no belief at all – a questioner believes seeking truth while a doubter wants to be told there is no truth at all.
The film revolves around death. White tried to kill himself, Black killed in the past. White says the answer to his problem is death. He doesn’t believe in an after life, he doesn’t believe in spirits and a community of the dead. He sees life as noise, and death as silence, peace, darkness eternal. He describes how he will embrace the persona of death, whisper eagerly into its bony ears.
Black asks whether it is better to have elegant reasons, worldy, sensible reasons to die, as opposed to dying for personal reasons. Black says that White can only see his own shadow. That faith is a case of having nothing else left to live for. Black wants to believe that people who want to die have something important to them which allows them to die, that death is never for nothing. White says that what he holds on to, as he jumps in front of that train, the one thing he won’t give up is giving up.
White believes that life is just a series of opportunity costs. Every hour, minute and second that passes by is another path we forego, and the closer we get to death, the less we can do, the more doors are closed to us, and the more futile our actions become. We are all “terminal commuters”, nothing we do lasts forever.
The Sunset Limited
The film seems to intentionally leave questions unanswered, maybe it would be presumptuous to try and answer these questions, but I think it’s important to take away from White’s mistakes. He believes in futility, that helping prevent death is pointless, that there is no god, that the only logical conclusion at the end of the day is to accept death. But his world view seems to be of the shadow. He has no friends, no family and nothing to live for. He looks at the shadow at the expense of seeing the light. Maybe the message is that life is simpler than we make it out to be, that mere living is a sufficient reason to live. But watch the movie, let me know what you think.