If you like watching an artistically crafted philosophical debate unfold between a White suicidal professor and the Black railway worker that saved his life, you will love The Sunset Limited. Based on screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s play of the same name, this film adaptation is the insightful dramatization of how abstract religious ideologies (and the lack thereof) have concretely manifested themselves in the lives of the post-modern American characters (so named only by the billing) Black and White. At the beginning of the film, Black has just saved White from killing himself on a train platform (that train being the Sunset Limited – the train that travels from Louisiana to California). From there, Black and White verbally duke it out as they discuss God, faith, and being (and failing to be) a brother’s keeper.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Black as the simple-minded, blue-collar everyman with a visceral back story that has led to only one method of operation: Jesus moves, he follows. Black’s goal is to keep White for a spell if not for any other reason but to stop him from going back the platform for another attempt. He ends up going beyond his own limit in order to try to reach out to White, and Jackson’s endearing performance brings everything this character needs: specifically, hope and desperation.
Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed the film) plays White as the weary intellectual who has grown tired of life, love, and his fellow man and ultimately seems hellbent on believing that God doesn’t exist. Jones’s White remains calm, cool, and collected for the majority of the film (until the climax…but no spoilers here). Although initially awkward, it directly opposes the nature and behavior of Black, who proves to be more of his foil than originally thought.
The dynamic and volatile dialogue between Black and White convictingly mirrors the bottled-up angst and tension that will more often than not present itself within the relationship between a Christian and an atheist. Some stuff will remain unspoken, but if left to natural tendencies, most of the strain will become evident under time and pressure. This is what makes McCarthy’s writing so relevant to today’s audience: it gives us two completely believable characters that are just as personable as they are archetypal.
The only negative to The Sunset Limited is its own nature: it really is just two guys talking in an apartment for two hours. If you’re not into that sort of thing, this movie may be a boring experience. The conflict isn’t Man vs. Man, it’s Idea vs. Idea, and it will seem to drone on if you don’t have something personally invested in its resolution. For me, it took some getting used to, so it may be more accessible than I’m giving it credit for, but I just wanted to give you all a heads up: it may be a cinematic snooze button if you don’t want to keep up with it.
This film contains plenty of powerful monologues for both characters, but it can seem to drag on at times. The dialogue is also filled, however, with graphic imagery and colorful language, so be sure to hoist those filters. That being said, though, I’m giving The Sunset Limited five stars because I believe this film can stir the right people to start having the right discussion of God again, believers and non-believers alike. Of course, that’s only if they can sit together in the same room for a couple of hours like Black and White do.