The Sunset Limited: Play Adapted into Feature Film

Cormac McCarthy is perhaps one of the finest writers alive today. A novelist in the veins of apocalyptical Southern Gothic that’s tried his hand as a playwright as well as a screenwriter. In 2011 he offered up a play, or rather a novella in the form of a play entitled The Sunset Limited. A title which most definitely does not refer to the train line that runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles. No, it’s not a train line, it’s a play and a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed (and even had some on set script guidance from McCarthy, who’s a long-time friend). One need not differ much from the source material, but one can refine the suggestions of the lines and how they should be spoken, how they are to be felt.

The Sunset Limited is Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson’s second collaboration since The Rules of Engagement (2000) and one cherishes their time spent away from each other onscreen but wonders why. It’s as though in the 17 years since, these actors, who had already been adept at their craft, have grown even more into seasoned veterans. They are masters that can occupy the mind of the audience with spellbinding authority. If you’re looking to be an actor, take notes on these gents.

The entirety of the film takes place in a meager apartment occupied by two men, Black and White, played by actors assigned according to their skin tones. Black is a murderer, an ex-con who’s found God and salvation through him. White is the erudite but despondent college professor whom Black has just saved from leaping in front of a subway train in an act of suicide. Black, having saved White’s life decided to bring White back to his apartment to convince him that life is worth living. What follows is an existential, life damning, life affirming battle of rhetoric between Black and White. It’s Black’s faith in God and the Bible that changed his life from a murderer to the positive force that he is presently. It is White’s deep knowledge of mankind from a lifetime of academia that has convinced him that life is no longer worth living.

The dichotomy of their philosophies sway back and forth, revealing more about the two characters through extended speeches and anecdotes. It’s interesting to notice the efflux of music when either Black or White have a powerful speech to pound into each other’s heads as well as ours. There are moments of humor as Black takes on virtual psychoanalytical role to White’s beleaguered patient laying on his couch talking about his parents. But fundamentally it’s about the value of human life. Black, in one instance attempts to hold and present God’s promise of life everlasting. Conveying it as something precious, a glowing evanescent portion that has a “little weight to it.” Given to us by a power greater than humanity, greater than our minds. Black offers his redemptive positivity as a man who lives by meager means.

One moment White is perishing the thought of poor crackheads living in squalor all around him, that they like the rest of the world are workers being carried off and killed systematically by those in power. Hopeless crackheads with no possible recovery. Later we see a contradiction when he is engrossed in one of life’s most intimate processes, eating. The food that Black offers White is, good, “Very Good.” White can almost (while not verbally) bring himself to agree that the people in the neighborhood are a diverse mix that has contributed to the delicious feast that he eats before him. That the squalor in the neighborhood isn’t totally abject, it has created something, innovated for a purpose, an outcome, anything. And anything should be better than nothing, in fact it’s good. It’s life.

It’s a trope for the human race, except we’re the crackheads and the delicious food is life. But White doesn’t see it that way. His is the church of Death, and everything else is illusion, nightmare. Ultimately, he forms his own damning language for eternity that even Black has no answer for. Nobody really wins this extended argument based on intellectual grounds, people must concede to a tie. Making it black and white in perpetual separation or grey in entirety. Is that the answer or is that just the way it is? Is there an answer that we can put to words?

There must exist some sort of spiritual intelligence or a language that would give value to that which is ultimately immaterial. To believe in the falsehood of its value is to drag those into a black abyss of ignorance in the face of death, while the intelligentsia at the fringes end it if they can, knowing that they were right to do so. To White, the full potential of man is in the smoke over Dachau.

So, what is this metaphysical language? What makes Black rise in the morning? A slight dosage of plain, blissful, ignorance? It would not appear so. Perhaps it IS the stuff that dreams are made of. Something that’s allowed people to overcome the crushing advance of extinction, of meaninglessness. A failsafe that’s evolved in us, from the day we were born, which keeps us on that train platform. If all life fades away, then at least see this movie before it does.

Erich Onzik

Erich is a sentient spiritual parasite that inhabits the bodies of human hosts until they've served their purpose. Currently, he possesses the body of a writer, cartoonist, and butcher living in NYC. He's written short pieces for The New York Times, Thrillist. He also wrote a graphic novel, and enjoys peddling it at bars.

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