Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Sunset Limited

Some spoilers in the post. 

Two men in a room. A long conversation between the two, lasting nearly 90 minutes of screen time. One is a black man (Samuel L Jackson), a poor railway worker, with a major criminal conviction behind him. The other is a white man, a Professor, (Tommy Lee Jones) worn out and world-weary, who's just attempted to commit suicide on the tracks in front of the Sunset Limited train. Somehow, and most unexpectedly, the black man has saved him and brought him back to his two-room apartment.  The door is locked with four or five different locks; outside the sounds of a major railway station go on intermittently: someone playing a trumpet badly, a sudden fight, shouting, trains stopping and starting. Our focus, however, is on the discussion these two men are having: life and death, belief and unbelief, God or not God.

This movie is based solidly on Cormac McCarthy's play - which isn't officially a play, but a 'novel in dramatic form (the playscript has minimal stage directions - the focus is on the dialogue). However, it's been presented frequently on stage, and works very well there, in spite of almost no 'action' (a coffee is made, some soup is cooked). The version I've just seen is the HBO version, directed by Tommy Lee Jones.

Both the stars revel in their parts, though Jackson's is much more the flamboyant one. Jones plays his very close to the bone: already looking like death warmed up in most of his movies, here he virtually has a mask of a face, with two dreadfully tired eyes peering out. I sometimes felt you could have done with more passion from Jones, but he saves it till the end, when he produces a tirade that shows he isn't going to change his position, no matter what. If anything he's more entrenched than ever. The much more 'fussy' Austin Pendleton played the same part on the stage - he may have been better cast, in fact, than Jones, since the latter doesn't come across as an academic in most of his films, but rather a man educated on the streets. I didn't quite feel that Jones had that self-preening that the part requires to be there in some measure. Nevertheless, he plays it in his own way, reinterpreting it so that what he does with it is effective. 

Jackson has never looked more at home on the screen. He's played some very oddball roles over the years (one of the Jedi in the second Star Wars trilogy, and that strange breakable character in Unbreakable) but here he's suited to the part completely. For much of the film his character seems to have the upper hand - the Christian apologist-cum-evangelist he might be seen as - but towards the end he realises that nothing he says will stop the other man attempting suicide again. He's knocked down, but not knocked out; he's done his level best, and that's all he could have done. God doesn't force his way into a person's life; if that person (White) doesn't want him, he'll let him be. And White doesn't want God
, come what may. Much of White's problem is a self-loathing, but he also gradually reveals that he loathes everyone else too (though he manages to tolerate Black long enough to stay and have a meal with him), and this hatred of his 'brother' (as Black calls other people) is perhaps his downfall.

But the film can be read in more than one way. As a Christian I can hear the old apologetic arguments skilfully framed by White. For some of the movie, Black's counter-arguments seem weak, and lacking in conviction. It's only at the end that he shows passion for his own belief. But an agnostic or atheist coming to the movie may well see it from the other side, and find White's Christian arguments the weaker ones. McCarthy leaves it open for both to chew over their viewpoints. McCarthy is quoted as not being a fan of writers who do not 'deal with issues of life and death,' and there's no doubt what this film is about.


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