Choices in black and white

Published April 1, 2012

Imagine a ruthless verbal wrestling match between darkness and light, a struggle between life and death. The conflict engages every ounce of its opponents’ strength, conviction and guile. It embodies cosmic concerns in two flesh-and-blood mortals.

C.S. Lewis presented one such struggle in his beautiful novel, Perelandra. Now, author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) has fashioned an equally compelling battle of words and ideas in The Sunset Limited, a 2011 film adapted from his own stage play of the same name. One of the two antagonists, White, says: “The truth in the forms I see has been emptied out. They no longer have any content. A train, a wall, a world, a man…a thing… hanging in a howling void. No meaning to life; it’s words. You asked me what I’m a professor of. I’m a professor of darkness. The night in day’s clothing.”

Stark moral opposites find themselves face to face in a desperate struggle for the human soul. Preacher is pitched against professor, faith versus unbelief, life against death, and hope against self-destruction and despair. Two nameless men, Black (Samuel L. Jackson) and White (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the film), face off in the spartan setting of a simply furnished apartment room. Black has thwarted White’s attempt to kill himself by throwing himself in front of a train called “The Sunset Limited.” White is a stranger to Black, but Black has taken responsibility for the other man’s fate and, in an effort to talk sense to him, has taken him home. But White will not be moved: “The shadow of the axe lies over every joy; every road ends in death, every friendship, every love… Torment, loss, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity…”

There is breathtaking poetic eloquence on both sides and the viewer is immersed in language of great power and beauty. The performances are nothing short of spellbinding, full of heartfelt emotion and intense, passionate conviction. Black extols faith and love, “that thing that allows you to ladle out benedictions on the head of strangers, instead of curses.” Where White sees only futility, Black sees hope and purpose. White: “Are you living the life you had planned?” Black: “No, it ain’t. But I got what I needed, instead of what I wanted.Sometimes, that’s the best kind of luck to have.”

Utterly engrossing and wonderfully moving, The Sunset Limited is a near-masterpiece of a film, an exquisite monument to outstanding writing and bravura performances. In spite of the very brief use of coarse language, I recommend you see it, whatever you do.

John Arkelian is an author and journalist based near Toronto.
© 2012 by John Arkelian.


  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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