In this segment, I hope to cast a little better light on The Sunset Limited, and get a little deeper into the film’s message, as well as breaking it down into some parts that I thought were significant. In order to do this, I’m going to have to give a great deal of the movie away (Something I don’t usually care to do in reviews), so I would ask that if you haven’t yet watched the film, you should probably abstain from reading this segment until you have. In addition, I’d love to hear other people’s takes. Remember that the majority of my philosophy studies are in Praxeology and are founded in economic thought, such as Ludwig Von Mises and Murray Rothbard, which is considered something of a soulless perversion of the subject by anyone who isn’t an Austrian Economist. So feel free to share.
We open with an extended silent shot of Black and White sitting across the table from one another. It prompts memories of a well set chess board; with both sides waiting for the other to make the first move. Neither of these men are amateurs, either. This isn’t some random coffee shop conversation about the meaning of life and death, these men have been there and back, and have a great deal more insight to offer on the topic than your average person. White, a professor who claims to have read better than 2 books a week for several decades, is the epitome of an educated man, with a well thought out and logical opinion. Black, an ex-criminal who has had his life completely revolutionized by his conversion to Christianity, has the strength of his newfound principle and revolutionized character to stand on.
White is immediately curious as to how it was Black was able to save him from jumping in front of the train. Claiming (for the sake of children and other potential onlooker’s sake) that he had made sure he was alone when jumping, he is curious as to how it was that Black was able to save him. This begs the viewer to consider the possibility that this might be something more significant than just two men sitting in a room. Black scoffs somewhat at the idea (his own) that he might be some sort of guardian angel. “You gonna get spooky on me professor? Maybe I was behind a post or something.” But the potential reality in this dark, dismal McCarthy dream room is that it might be some manner of “last chance” for White to come to the light. There are never any clear shots of the outdoors, what setting the place is in, but yet there is the occasional yell from a junkie tenant emanating into the room, prompting White to feel increasingly uncertain with his surroundings.
While Black bases most of life’s value on spiritual things, White claims to believe in “things” which he describes as Art, music, literature, anything that he sees as a vital cornerstone in the development of civilization. These are the sort of things one would expect a non-religious, educated man to regularly enjoy, but to hear White say these are things he “believes” in is quite interesting. As the story develops we come to realize that White has slowly “lost his faith,” so to speak, in art and culture.
White’s suicidal condition is not one of depression, but rather a state that he believes of greater understanding. He doesn’t claim (at least until the end) that he no longer desires to continue to love because he isn’t happy, but because, as he sees it, man has become increasingly more knowledgeable and intelligent until it becomes the first and only species aware enough to realize the futility of its own existence. “Banish the fear of death from man’s hearts and they would not live a day!” he says.
Black believes that White’s faith in shallow things, such as culture or art, were just the same as a junkie who puts his faith in drugs or alcohol. Fragile things that will fail, whereas Black sees his faith in God as a rock-strong foundation that will never fail him. You can see that Black sympathizes with White’s point of view, and it is also obvious why it is that he believes he can save White, but he is missing an important piece of the puzzle, something about White that he doesn’t get until the very end which throws a giant wrench into the equation.
White after some time ceases to blow off Black’s questions, and seems to find him genuinely interesting. It is only when Black claims that he sees good, positive things buried deep down inside White that he takes interest, in what at first might seem like a positive sign from White, but in the end seems to merely be White’s fascination with how Black could be so overwhelmingly positive about his condition. He asks Black about his criminal history, and seems genuinely shocked to find out that it is a quite severe one. Such a strong transformation from murderer and sadist to a penniless selfless preacher. White suggests, after seeing the horrid conditions that Black is exposed to on a regular basis, that he perhaps go somewhere where he could actually help. “As opposed to someplace where help is needed?” comes the reply.
This isn’t your everyday typical argument between two men with differing beliefs. The two are genuinely so far apart, that neither understands the other. The lack of understanding breeds something of an intellectual and spiritual fascination which makes the conversation not only so long, but so interesting. It’s belief versus non-belief, but also optimism vs. pessimism, selfishness vs. altruism. Black and White, being the names of the characters, seems almost ironic in this context, when considering both the personalities as well as the racial element. Neither man would prefer to talk about themselves, Black because he is ashamed of his past and ostensibly trying to recompense for it, whereas White holds back on the nature of his true feelings, seemingly because he does not want to subject Black to them.
When the nature of the conversation becomes more direct, more aggressive, is where White finally begins to show his true colors. White becomes exasperated with Black trying to convince him to believe in something, that Black believes he is searching for. “I loathe these discussions; the argument of the village atheist whose single passion is to revile endlessly that which he denies the existence of in the first place.” White does not only shun religion, but he does not want to be religious. The prospect of an afterlife is so horrible to him that his true faith is in nothingness, in absolute darkness. Through the entire discussion, Black had been predicating his argument on the assumption that White was simply lost, and wanted to be found like so many others. But White is not like the other atheists, rather, he would prefer the thought of no life at all to any. It is my opinion that White waited until the very end to express this sentiment because he somewhat liked Black; that is, he could not see himself subjecting his view of the world onto anyone else. But when all arguments to the contrary (White had previously offered only the argument of an atheist, not a nihilist to the table) had failed him, he was left with only his true, very dark feelings to allow Black to finally allow him to leave.
Black, despite knowing he has encountered something totally new and, as one can tell by his increasingly desperate expressions completely helpless, still tries to talk White out of killing himself. Whether Black believes this to be some sort of penance is uncertain, but it is clear that no matter how strong an argument he thinks he makes, he cannot convince the mind of a man who simply has no desire whatsoever to save himself. The story ends with White exactly where we found him; and Black sitting on the floor, clearly shaken.
If one was to ask what the underlying message of the story is, I’m not entirely certain it has one. It introduces some new points to what might otherwise have been a tired and clichéd discussion, but beyond that it offers no answers, and leaves the viewer with more questions than they had before coming in. A couple points I had; first, that both men are very clearly self-interested. Black sees it as a point of redemption to be able to save White, and his failure clearly rattles his own allegedly strong faith. Secondly, White doesn’t believe in anything seemingly because he doesn’t want to. He has found life to be such a wholly unpleasant experience that the prospect of a faith which promises it eternally seems the worst possibility. Finally, there are a few more quotes spaced throughout the film that add to the thesis of how this might be an almost supernatural discussion. See if you can pick them out, because they are there.