I watched Sunset Limited a few months ago, jotted down some thoughts the next morning, but then forgot about it until I was going back through my notebooks, which is why I’m only posting it now. The film is written by Cormac Mccarthy, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s comprised of a single conversation in a small apartment — ninety minutes of dialogue relieved by only the most inconsequential action, like taking a piss or putting soup on the stove.
The premise of the film is that BLack (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has prevented White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) from jumping in front of a train. Black, who is a former convict and a deeply religious man, tries to rescue White, who is a deeply atheist professor, from his emotional and spiritual crisis.
The starkness of the film is profound. Not only is is strictly limited in place and time, but the set is sparse, almost rudimentary. There is no music or sound effects, only ambient sound, except for an eerie sort of noise that sounds when each of the men come to the crisis of his argument.
In this sense, Sunset Limited directly contrasts popular movie making, which constantly overwhelms the viewer with audio and video excess, with relentless action, and with an ever-cutting camera, to the point where dialogue and character development are almost irrelevant. Without these distractions, the script of Sunset Limited must stand entirely on its own, for ninety minutes, without relief, a task that it usually accomplishes.
The staging sometimes feels a little forced, with the characters changing locations on the set more frequently and with less motivation than would be normal for a real conversation, but the dialogue is generally natural and free, a serious accomplishment, especially considering that the conversation takes up topics — religion, morality, death, personal responsibility, and so on — that can quickly feel heavy and awkward.
The discomfort of the film is precisely in this contrast between its visual starkness and its conversational depth, in the sparseness of the space that it uses to confront the profoundness of its moral questions. In this sense the film does what McCarthy always does, relentlessly, in every book and film he writes — he present us with the moral question of what we are in ways that are difficult to avoid.
A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t like McCarthy. He always makes me uncomfortable.” And that’s true. His work is often uncomfortable because of its intensely moral character, in the sense that it confronts us with the nature of our inhumanity, which is always an uncomfortable experience.
This is why McCarthy’s voice is such an important one in American culture, because he insists that his work perform this moral function, no matter the genre, whether he is writing westerns, or cop dramas, or gangster films. He contradicts the assumption, now thoroughly ingrained in us, that art should be merely entertainment, should leave us feeling content and comfortable, should leave our understanding of ourselves largely unchallenged. What his writing does is make us sit with the questions we would rather ignore.
In the case of Sunset Limited, he makes us sit with questions of faith, morality, meaning, death, and human responsibility, makes us sit in close proximity to them, in a cramped apartment, with no other distraction, until we are forced (like his protagonists) either to flee the room or remain and be broken by them.