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HBO Special Sunset Limited Pits Believer Against Nonbeliever

My favorite films are ones like The Little Foxes, or Twelve Angry Men, or Glengarry Glen Ross, all movies that were adapted from plays to the big screen. The Sunset Limited, an HBO production directed by Tommy Lee Jones that features Jones and Samuel L. Jackson in this short film’s only onscreen roles, has joined the list.

Black: “What would you do if Jesus was to speak to you?”

White: “Do you imagine that he might?”

Black: “No, I don’t. But, but, I’own know.”

White: “I’m not virtuous enough.”

Black: “No, professor, it ain’t nothing like that. You ain’t got to be virtuous. You just got to be quiet.”

Excerpt from Sunset Limited production

Cormac McCarthy, who writes about some of the most God-awful characters, originally concocted this philosophical wrestling match between a college professor, called White, who has attempted suicide and the ex-convict, known as Black, who saves his life as a play. On the screen, it opens like a traditional movie, with stark, monochromatic imagery that evokes a certain quality of timelessness, as if this movie could be set as easily in the 60’s as it could be in the present. Jones elects to have the characters address each other directly, discarding any mention of the diametrically opposed monikers McCarthy gave them in the play. The carefully wrought lines create a powerfully engaging dialogue about religious belief almost from the beginning. In a lot of ways, the exchanges between Black and White reminded me of conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances over the years that pit believers versus non-believers.

Black: “I ain’t a doubter, but I am a questioner.”

White: “What’s the difference?”

Black: “A questioner wants the truth. A doubter wants to be told ‘there ain’t no such thing’.”

Excerpt from Sunset Limited production

As the director, Jones added visual interest with a variety of devices—traffic sounds, the clamor of loud neighbors, atmospheric lighting, rain falling behind a window pane, the sharing of a meal together—that dramatically expanded the vista of a story set in one room. For the first time in a long time, Samuel Jackson really acted, giving it to us straight, no chaser, instead of playing the Samuel L. Jackson persona he has become famous for recreating in movie after movie. Tommy Lee Jones didn’t make quite as big a transformation from his tough guy screen image, but was understated enough to provide the necessary balance to Jackson’s dynamic style of delivery.

It is the voices, and the acting ability of Jackson and Jones, that turn the big ideas they wrestle with into an intimately entertaining quest for spiritual truth. Their voices carry everything that matters in this 90 minute film. It is their voices that march ceaselessly towards the intellectual battlefield where they duke it out, believer versus non-believer, in an effort to convince one another of the validity of their convictions.


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