In a move that eschews any pretense of subtlety, the two characters in 'The Sunset Limited'--a film based on the play by Cormac McCarthy--are simply named Black and White. In a postmodern world that increasingly sees all things in shades of grey, McCarthy intends to revert to bold, stark dichotomy. At least as it relates to the big questions of God and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of existence.
Black is an evangelical ex-convict played by Samuel L. Jackson and White is an atheist professor played by Tommy Lee Jones. Black has just rescued white from a suicide attempt; White attempted to jump in front of a speeding train, and Black stopped him. Somehow the two end up back at Black's apartment and a discussion about life and God ensues. The entire film is essentially a single scene in the apartment with the two talking to each other. While that description is guaranteed to keep Generation ADHD away, the film is actually widly entertaining if you enjoy big ideas and discussions about them.
The characters, true to their monikers, espouse worldviews that are in direct opposition. Black is a cheerful, optimistic, and uneducated man who "doesn't know anything that isn't in [the Bible]", while White is a pessimistic, gloomy and highly educated man who has come to realize that life is pointless. It seems fairly obvious that, to some extent, these characters are also ciphers, intended to embody particular worldviews.
Most atheists, I imagine, would object to the atheist being portrayed as suicidal when the vast majority of atheists are not suicidal or utterly nihilistic in their worldview. This objection misses the point as the character of White is not merelyan atheist; he is atheism. He represents the inexorable end of a rejection of God, which must be nihilism, if that rejection is carried to its logical conclusion. If there is no absolute Good, no grounding for existence, then there can be no source of value that isn't ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. The movements of human will, just and unjust, good and evil, are all just movement. Doing 'good' can not be any better than 'bad', any more than a tree swaying to the left in the wind can be 'better' than it swaying to the right.
While the vast majority of atheists don't embrace a thoroughgoing nihilism of this sort, for various psychological reasons, the point being made is about the necessary ethos of atheism as such, not about individual atheists. Most Western atheists, knowingly or unknowingly, attempt to navigate some 'middle way' between the values of Christianity, and pure nihilism--this middle way is often called 'humanism'--but McCarthy seems to reject that such a middle way even exists. Hence the names of the characters. This line of reasoning follows the intellectual tradtion of the likes of Nietszche, Heidegger and Dostoevsky.
McCarthy's writing style is most often compared to William Faulkner, and for good reason--he was clearly influenced by Faulkner--but 'The Sunset Limited' is McCarthy at his most Dostoyevskian. Most of Dostoevsky's writing lends itself to stage; dialogue dominates and the thoughts and words of the characters are primary while elements such as physical descriptions are minimized. Also, a recurring theme in his writings was his own Christianity, and the rising tide of atheism and the nihilism that must follow it. Lastly, Dostoevsky also often used his characters as embodiments of particular ideas. McCarthy has voiced admiration for Dostoevsky in the past, and with 'The Sunset Limited' the influence is at its most pronounced.
While atheists might object to their worldview being portrayed as necessarily leading to an abyss of despair, I think Christians have more legitimate cause to object to this particular depiction of their faith. Black is portrayed as willfully myopic intellectually, relying largely on emotional arguments to make his point. He appeals to 'happiness' as a reason to believe in God, when the Bible pretty clearly says that 'happiness' is far from guaranteed for a follower of Christ (though joy is). When White contrasts the Bible with 'legitimate' history, White doesn't even protest. Black also seems to reject the authority of scripture. I could go on. While all of these tendencies can easily be present in a single believer, it doesn't make for an accurate portrayal of faith in God as such. The end result is that faith is portrayed as a means of having a reason to live and to be happy, without much serious regard for the truth. Which is not what Christianity is.
Reading the characters in extremely broad strokes you get the impression that faith is a kind of blissful ignorance while unbelief is tragic realism. I don't think McCarthy's point is quite as simplistic as that, but to the extent that this idea is present I wholly reject it.
With these reservations in mind, the portrayal of Black as a Christian, rather than as Christianity, is extremely favorable. Black is simply a loving Christian who is interested in honestly meeting White where he is and engaging with him out of concern. He wants to know who he is, what he believes, what brought him to this and how he can help him. On this level Black is an extremely accurate portrayal of the action part of Christianity. If we are to be known by our love, which is to say by our actions, then Black is easily recognizable as a Christian.
The film would have been slightly more interesting to me if both sides had been given better arguments, but as it is they largely engage each other on a visceral level, which is intriguing in its own way. The rapid-fire exchanges by the two actors are akin to a verbal tennis match. Real life discussions are rarely this neat; they never really talk past each other or misunderstand each other's points. There is a true meeting of the minds. This makes for much more exhilirating drama than a hyper-realist take, which would probably feature many awkward pauses, evasions, misunderstandings and changes of subject. Instead Black and White converse as fluidly as if they were the inner voices of a conflicted mind.
McCarthy seems less interested in which perspective is true than exploring the nature and consequences of belief and unbelief. This is a fruitful exploration as investigating the consequences of each can give us insight into the likely truthfullness and inherent value of the competing claims. But the value of Christianity is inextricably linked to its claim to truth. If it's a nice, coherent moral system, but it is untrue, then it's of no ultimate value. Though it makes some sense-- at least in an artistic expression rather than in an book, essay or dissertation--to defer the question of truth. The subject here is the questions, not answers, and how the competing worldviews approach them. Who was Jesus? Is existence meaningless? Can one find meaning in cultural things like democracy, freedom, music and art like White did at one time? Or is that all just so much rubbish on the trash pile of history, all destined to burn? While the truth of these matters is very important, contemplation always precedes understanding and it's the proper role of art to encourage and spark contemplation and reflection. By that standard 'The Sunset Limited' succeeds marvelously.
The Sunset Limited starts playing on HBO On Demand today, February 14th, and continues for the rest of the month.