Monday, February 14, 2011

'The Sunset Limited' - Review

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.


  1. Many thanks for your described experiences.
    If you liked to get to know more about Dostojewski, I would be glad if you became this side to visited ones:

  2. About Me: Tall, pale and hideous to behold.

    I like your writing. I think you have Sunset Limited all wrong.

    Mr. Black is not a depiction of a charismatic Christian do-gooder. He strikes me, whole cloth, as the embodiment of the self-justifying violent, found specifically in religious cultures, forever forgiving themselves and others for life-altering, unconscionable acts of murder, betrayal, excess and wickedness. The circular beauty of their worldview being that all the evil they have done presents them each with a need for god, while their fellow man, whom they have often wronged and with whom they have no credibility, serves as both echo-chamber and reinforcement for their perceived mission upon "finding" god. To be clear: Black needs White far more than White needs Black. Without fellow sufferers to serve as combination confessors and community salvation-projects, life with god loses meaning for the religious man. This dynamic is illustrated quite well in the Sunset Limited as Black repeatedly begs White to "stay a while longer." Meanwhile, all he has to offer in the unasked-for time shared are cautionary tales of woe punctuated by (the bright spots) offers of biological comfort (take a seat, have a coffee, eat my stew, it's got mangoes in it...etc.). "Your brotherhood is the brotherhood of pain," White points out. The alternative to which, in the play, being the unknown outcome of what happens when White leaves the apartment to ostensibly "take the Limited." A fate he no longer fears, but one which Black seems heaven-sent or hell-bent (depending on your pov) to prevent. "Banish the fear of death," White intones, gravely, "and men wouldn't opt to live a minute loner (sic)."

    The real message here, to my eyes, was that the collective need and neediness of Christians (and all other religious) is an imposition on the human experience.
    As dark and dreary as a nihilistic worldview can see, if it's our choice, then we say:
    "Leave us alone; we don’t care what "HE" thinks about us, or our choices. We don't believe "HE" exists. I'm sorry if that rejection leaves you alone; maybe your faith can keep you warm?" (if that were true, why are you so desperate to hear us consent?)

  3. matt - cont'd.
    Black's wicked past, full of alcohol, violence, prison, murder, death and regret seems to leave no impression on his present-day cheerfulness. This is anathema to a naturalistically moral person. Nothing he did is wiped clean, the consequences of his action cannot be ignored no matter how many junkies he saves. His self-imposed exile in a tenement, sans record player, is his by choice, obviously, and justified under the precepts of his own faith in the nature of the universe. To these facts Black repeatedly holds in the play, as he will not admit to the terrible nature of his home. And while we know little about White, it sounds as if he spent most of his life reading. And while increasing his knowledge has obviously served only to diminish his understanding, he goes to his end with the solitary dignity of choice, presumably unencumbered by the weighty duties and repentant desires of the religious. Again, this is a fate of his choosing, guided by a lack of mission in the universe rather than such a distinct one, as embodied by Black. So despite the undeniable similarity of each man’s support for his chosen path, there remains, in essence, only a single difference:
    One would abridge the other's freedom of choice to uphold his worldview, while the other does not...and goes to his end alone.
    From any vantage point save the Abrahamic, is this balanced morality? I say no.
    For Black, it's just a fear of loneliness, death and change that can only be assuaged by the sharing of said fear with others in the confines of an unsatisfying material existence (the apartment). The end must come. The fear of it makes it worse.
    As for the general label of nihilist, which I have allowed as you applied in your initial post; I think that it's a little too easy to call White a nihilist. He admitted that books, art, culture and other limited facets of human existence once provided raison d’ĂȘtre, but he had run out of interest in those things. I think an honest person would recognize how that happens. I used to love video games, but as I proceed into my thirties, I love them less and less. I enjoy responding to blogs, but I find I have less and less to say. I don't think it's a coincidence that many elderly people become increasingly religious, because, as fantastical as it all is, it is the closest thing to a brochure for the afterlife that we have. And having exhausted this existence, many want to know that more stimulation and decision-making and experience lie ahead. I can appreciate that, to some degree, but it simply lacks any basis in fact. In which case, an honest person, in facing a degraded enjoyment of life, should be able to decide his fate without the meddling intervention of those with whom he simply cannot relate.

    Cool blog, btw.

  4. I think your interpretation of Black's actions in the film as being essentially and primarily selfish is bizarre. Yes, he practically begs White not to leave on numerous occasions--just as any decent human being would do to a suicidal fellow human. While Black desires to 'save' White in the spiritual sense, he also is attempting to save him in the primary, physical sense. Something that isn't exclusive to what you seem to think is a self-serving Christianity (Black being misery and wanting company), but is again what any decent human would do out of concern for the other person, not for any self-serving purpose.

    "One would abridge the other's freedom of choice to uphold his worldview, while the other does not"

    One would? There's nothing in the film that suggests that Black would use force or coercion to keep White from deciding his own fate.

    As far as belief in God being consoling, especially for older people, but lacking a 'basis in fact', I must disagree. Christianity is wholly based in fact. And to the extent that it can be consoling, I don't think that's one of the stronger points in its favor.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Nathan,

    Great writing, I enjoyed reading your post.

    I saw the movie last night in french. Sorry if I responded almost a year later. It was playing on TV. When I recognized Samuel Jackon and Tommy Lee Jones, I decide to read the synopsis and was intrigue and decide to watch it. Then I decided to search for a Christian review of the movie and so here I am.

    I regret to say that contrary to you I really didn't like how christianity was depict in this movie. I think that McArthy's sees christians like self-centered, ignorants and prideful persons which barely understand the world and the people around them. Almost like maniacs or sociopaths. Just think of the part when he tells his prison story. He was scary. I don't know much about this author but I think he doesn't like christians, I'm almost sure of that.

    When finally, White decides to present is view of the world, his words comes out like bullets coming out of a submachine gun zeroing on the target. Black was knocked down in a few seconds. We can almost feel White's enjoying his superiority of mind when Black seems to cover his heads like someone who tries to avoid the blows from his much stronger opponent. I really though for a minute that he would get up and say: Well, you're right lets go jump together.

    To me, watching this movie was like watching a boxing match that was totally unfair. Like an heavy weight champion against a light weight beginner. Matt's comment proves it. The author I think has surely the same world view then his.

    The sad thing is that it is a good picture of the majority of christians today. They barely know their bible, know nothing about philosophy or others worldviews and they want to save people. But hey, they heared Jesus talk to them. That's convincing alright! I'm not saying you are anything like that. I am just talking out of my own experience.

    Of course Christianity is based on facts. But we didn't see anything of those in the movie. I am not suprised either. I was stupid enough to hope at the beginning that Black would try to do a Bible study with him. But the movie was starting and I didn't know who the author was. At the end, Black had the nerves to rebuke God for not giving him the good words. Wow! They were lying on his table all the time waiting for him to stop speaking his heresy (which he admit himself) and speak the words of God.

    Black didn't preach the Gospel. He didn't try to get some help from his church or his pastor which he probably didn't know any anyway. No! He had to use his own words and his own way. This is prideful. That's how I saw him anyway. Maybe not what the author wanted me to think.

    But the story comes from a men's mind that doesn't know God. He probably doesn't know any good christian either. That, I'm almost sure of.