It’s hard for me to imagine someone who welcomes death and darkness like I welcome light and love – someone who longs to be in utter, distant loneliness forever. There are such people and Cormac McCarthy introduced me to one such person last night in his screenplay, “The Sunset Limited,” an HBO film.
The entire film takes place in a cramped apartment where two men take ahold of the other’s worldview by the collar and give it a thorough shaking. Their lives could not read more opposite, but their human-ness keeps them in a wordy banter between death and life.
Several times it felt like the wind got knocked clean out my lungs, so direct was the attack on the anchor to which my soul is bound. After Black (played by Samuel L. Jackson) rescued him from a suicide attempt, White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) refuses to give up hope on one thing: giving up. He plans to end his life and finally find peace in the nothingness – the void, dark, solitary space beyond. Everything he valued in life as a respected professor revealed itself as an illusion and in his ‘enlightened’ state the only logical response was suicide.
The despair was palpable as White spoke – like death’s bony hand had already strangled the life out of him, twisting up his insides. When his eyes attempt to betray the death in his soul, his words pound harder the nails on his vacant coffin. Emptiness.
Black (Jackson) is a man of conviction and a self-proclaimed ‘outlaw’ when it comes to faith. He lives in a rough tenement, surrounded by junkies and crackheads, and claims to not have a single thought apart from his Bible knowledge. He lives simply, available and eager to be used by God in the lives of broken people. And White (Jones) would have nothing to do with his charity.
With the striking boldness of a man who has seen death battle in front of him all his life, Black debates the meaning of life with White (and on several occasions requests an everyman paraphrase). Though we are pulled this way and that, the end of the film closes without resolution. We suppose that White left the same man who walked into the shabby room, a pending suicide statistic. We suppose that, though Black is shaken, he remains faithful to the God who took him down to the train tracks the night before.
The irresolute ending feels like a rope unraveled. Brilliant dialogues pull the pieces apart across 91 minutes. In a last, desperate effort to reach White, Black responds to the man’s hope for the cold darkness of suicide,
“Maybe you could just keep that in reserve. Maybe just take a shot at startin over. I dont mean start again. Everybody’s done that. Over means over. It means you walk away. I mean, if everthing you are and everthing you have and everthing you have done has brought you at last to the bottom of a whiskey bottle or bought you a one way ticket on the Sunset Limited then you cant give me the first reason on God’s earth for salvagin none of it. Cause they aint no reason. And I’m goin to tell you that if you can bring yourself to shut the door on all of that it will be cold and it will be lonely and they’ll be a mean wind blowin. And them is all good signs. You dont say nothin. You just turn up your collar and keep walkin.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited
Black suggests that if White’s life has brought him to make such a terminal decision as suicide, then he’s come to the end of himself. If there is nothing to salvage (nothing except death itself holds meaning), what could be lost in starting over but that which could be gained by starting over?
When White responds with probably the most horrifying monologue of the entire film, we can almost taste the human depravity as it drips off his lips. Void. Cold. Death.
And the viewer must decide what or who is capable of arranging the unraveled strands into something meaningful. The viewer must battle with his own demons and despairs when everything is shaken free of its settled skin.
The viewer must decide if he is the anchor or if the anchor is deeper than his frail, human skin.