Strange Bacon: Further Analysis of The Sunset Limited (Spoilers)


            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.


24 thoughts on “Strange Bacon: Further Analysis of The Sunset Limited (Spoilers)

  1. This is the underlying message of this film, from my real life experience and perspective.
    First, White expresses that he suffers from suicidal depression early on in the film and that it has not responded to medication. This condition is also known as psychotic depression, and any psychosis involves “episodes” of escalation (oddly also episodes of SEEMING ‘normalcy’). He has sought treatment, he has not found it. His mental state does not allow the “light”, his convoluted argument regarding the darkness in which he is enveloped leads him over and over, with circular reasoning, the same conclusion: meaningless suffering, pointless experience, and because his pain is so deep and has been ongoing for so long, he cannot begin to allow any concept of another “dimension” or “reality” after physical death. He is mentally ill. Black has survived a horrible past and, in fact, has had a revelation, one that is believable (I know many who have received such and none of them are mentally ill). He is mentally sound; his emotional dysfunction, which was great and landed him in “the jail house”, is instantly modified by his revelation. He has, figuratively and literally, *seen the light*.
    The struggle between them is the age old struggle of enlightenment with profound darkness of the mind and soul. The ultimate message is: the healthy mind cannot ever , never, “reach” the mentally ill mind. Moreover, the healthy mind (Black) is often stupefied, terrified, overwhelmed by this reality since it cannot construct a scenario wherein “talk” and “sharing” cannot reach the soul of the individual receiving it. So Black is left thunderstruck, in pain, confused, and his faith may or may not get him beyond this test of his convictions. White, on the other hand, is quite intelligent and has thoroughly convinced himself by his interior rhetoric that what his profound illness “tells” him is real. That is the message.

    • I am not sure that the illness is the message here. There is nothing in White’s argumentation suggesting that his believes are founded in mis-conceptions.

      In fact, his argumentation is more theological than anything else. What we are seeing here is someone who prefers death from a well founded perspective. It is an equation that has removed all x-factors like illness and depression as reasons for not choosing life.

      We are actually being exposed to death as a legitimate choice, which most of us finds hard to digest in a world where we are fed with optimism, and where any other religion is at it’s weakest: the uncertainty of the after-life

      • “There is nothing in White’s argumentation suggesting that his believes are founded in mis-conceptions.”

        He says, after he heard the jail house story, that being happy is contrary to the human condition. This is a mis-conception if I’ve ever heard one. His perspective is not well founded, it is barricaded. He is unable to recognise his surroundings, because he is full of himself. Death might be a legitimate choice, but I wouldn’t consider him in a position to decide that. I think that illness here is the message, not that there are two equally debatable world views are having an argument. There is a social worker who just rescued a jumper. That is the situation.

    • No evidence in the play that White is either depressed or psychotic. We assume that anyone who wants to end their life must be depressed. However wanting to end your life is only one symptom of depression and does not in itself define depression. Medication (and psychotherapy) doesn’t help if you are not sick. If anything Black shows psychotic tendencies believing in an invisible all-merciful god in light of obvious evidence to the contrary. By attributing White’s suicide attempt and argument to being depressed or mentally ill, I think you miss the point entirely.

      • Lois, you wrote “No evidence in the play that White is either depressed or psychotic.” White however says that he was in group therapy and found no “connection” with those people, and that he tried psychotropics but that none of them helped him. A persistent theme in White’s life is emotional disconnect with his parents and his colleagues at university, whom he “loaths.” Suicidal intentions and universal hatred of parents and peers, in addition to the failure of psychotropics and group therapy surely indicate a troubled, or depressed, or psychotic mental state.

  2. Something else comes to mind when I think about the Sunset Limited and the arguments, the pasts and situations of both characters, Black and White, and how so many see this one-sided idea of White being mentally ill. I’m of the opinion that they both are. What I mean by that is this: White suffers from depression and suicidal tendencies, obviously, but the other side of this is Black. Some may find this statement appalling to utter but I think it must be said.

    Black suffers from delusion. The delusion being religion. But let’s give this some thought and by thought I’ll lay out the scenario. If a man tells you that he has an invisible friend who is a six foot tall rabbit (and I know I’m using ‘Harvey’ but please indulge my example) one would think that this man is crazy and should at most be locked away or at the very least put on medication. However, if the situation is changed slightly and a person says that their friend is “Jesus”, “God”, or whoever or whatever, then the response is one of complete indifference. Why? Because it can be safe to be said that religious thinking in the unknowable and the unseen seems to be a type of accepted insanity.

    Now, if it isn’t religious delusion that makes Black mentally ill, then one could say that his optimism is a mental illness. Many think that staying positive and being optimistic can be such a wonderful thing but it can be seen as another form of delusional thinking. A type of delusional thinking that is given a more polite name or more “politically correct” name. And this optimism is fed by his belief in the idea of more life after death. An idea that many cling to because it dries their eyes in the face of a horrible inevitability.

    So, if we look at the Sunset Limited through the lens of mental illness and presume that both Black and White are mentally ill in some form or another.

    • I disagree. Why White is not mentally ill I have argued above.

      When you say that Black is mentally ill because he believes in God, you are also wrong. In your description we must consider “insanity” or “delusion” against the definition of “Psychopathology”, and “Religion” is clearly not a category for mental disorders.

      I am an atheist myself, but religion is a matter of choice. If we believe we must treat all religious people for mental illness, we would have to treat most of the world, and we would be back to a couple of inquisitions and genocides from the middle ages up until today.

      To have a choice in what we believe in is the human being’s privelege of free will.

      However, arguing that religion can be part of a mental disorder is possible – just not in religion itself.

  3. I felt like white was literally the devil breaking down blacks process of getting poor souls into heaven. And I thought he did a great job. Just a thought.

    • Wasn’t it more Black trying to convince White rather than the other way around? At best, White managed to sow a seed of doubt, but not as the devil. It was Black that pulled him off the platform and tried to save him by conviction.

      • It’s all about your perspective, the movies core goes around perspective, and so those their discussion. I do think that, at least by the ending, White really represented the devil himself, the way his attitude dramatically changed, the shadow in his eyes, his apocaliptic point of view, in a religious mans perspective, that seed of doubt would be the devil speaking through someone else, but since y already empathised with him, he can’t see it in a simple way anymore (as of everything else he belived in). But I do believe the movie has a message about delussion. Those who are not decived by their ego and search of understanding, those who live in bliss, actually live a better life overall. White represented temptation, and Black putted himself in that situation because of the strenght of his blindness for reason.

    • Good question. The first time he looks to God and when he repeats it he looks at us in the camera. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, but why we can only speculate. I think you are right though, that it is about doubt: Doubt of the unknown and doubt if what we do is good enough in the eyes of God.

    • “Is that okay…is that okay…”?

      We see a man now crushed under the weight of his own inability. But we do not know if he is counted a failure. In truth I’d say “God forbid”. He has come up against the most sincere resistance to what he knew to that time…as his most fervent desire. He “tried” everything…only to find (per his understanding) God had given the opponent “the words” (that we must assume touched him by this acknowledgement) but kept such from him that he could discern a triumph.

      I don’t understand.

      If you wanted me to help him, then how

      come you didn’t give me the words?

      You give them to him.

      What about me?

      Little did he know how much God had helped him, the one who once fashioned himself God’s helper. Yes…”What about me”? When do I “get to win”? When do I get to bask in triumph? Who would oppose a man meaning “so well” of himself as helper…as to allow him to know such ignominious (seeming) defeat?

      This matter goes far beyond the greatest skill of the apologist, the explainer, the man who can come up (or thinks he can) with the best defense(s) “of the faith”. He is all at a loss with proving God. This is God’s purview alone…and even the most sincere seeming servant must be forced to confront this appointment with God in this matter…”I am God and I do as I wish”

      But we see (as observers) a something not to be overlooked. One man, we are sure, gets to see a new day dawn…even if he sounds rather unsure of his “position” now in plea “Is that okay?”

      He gets what we cannot be sure another does. But that is the point…do we see (regardless of anyone else’s agreement or ability to be “won” to our position)…what we are given? It is enough for us to know. And all we are really allowed to know. And, it is enough.

  4. Replace god with love. White has not felt true love from anything or anyone it seems for much time. I dont want to be here without God(love) in my life. God(love) is not real. Love is real and all around us and it is something to live for. White blew my mind and this movie was an instant favorite. I better watch it again before i proved a detailed analysis. Im glad that i found this discusion board on this movie. Great comments. I have much to learn

  5. The characters names are white and black the movie is about an interpretation of contrasting beliefs. If you mix the colors black and white you’ll get the color grey which is what this movie is about. Balance. There is truth to both sides, both arguments, both beliefs. But the key element is the fact that In life, in culture, in religion “grey” interpretation exists. And that’s what makes our opinions subjective. Nobody has to “choose” a side. We can interpret our existence any way we please.

    • Fist of all, I was engrossed on the very first analogy.

      My thoughts.
      1st Ironic! That reading these comments ( all great, because they are your thoughts & who am I to judge) but I do find that all comments represent a very particular content that was stated in the movie, black & white. Very logical. One spiritual & able to think deeper that not every one possess, the logical way of thought. Thought with reason. Then there is insight to your & my life right now, even though we do not know each other, but yet we can feel the position in the way we all analyze adding without intention a subtle “personal” almost one-sided definition or analysis. And that too can make all of us interesting. And learning without education.

      2. My personal opinion & insight on the movie:
      Well… Being the main basis of the movie, Black & White. Black vs White.
      Day & Night. Day vs Night.
      On a ” spiritual” level & seeing as though Religion is another main focus of the movie, take those words & the portrayal of the “Black Man & White Man in a Religious/ Spiritual Aspect & what comes to the mind?
      Black vs White… Spiritually… Darkness vs Lightness. The Dark Matter of Thought. The Negative aspect of our mind, thoughts, beliefs, our view of life – Negative view of life. Having a “trained Mind” that only consists of trained thoughts & of nothing new, but darkness, negativity, critical, depression? Suicide! And the only thing that thrives & is content in lurking in darkness? Evil! The Devil! Satan!

      The White (Spiritually & Religiously)
      What instinctively comes to mind? …
      The Light matter of thought. The positive aspect of our mind. The Light! Hope!Knowledge from within that comes naturally. Grace of the Devine! Angels! The Holy Spirit!
      The Lord!

      … And to that on other realm & taking in all of the above one can not help to feel that the two ( men) of Black & White are ONE in reversal. That Actually Samuel L Jackson was the only one in the room & Fighting his Own Demon, evil energy, thoughts, spirit, which the s Tommy Lee Jones. There were times throughout the movie where there was a snipit of insight as to recognising him (Samuel L Jackson) asking the questions for himself, fighting his ” Dark” thoughts, questioning the Dark, negative thoughts he is wrestling with. Trying to find answers & reason. Fighting the Devil that is trying to take a stronghold.

      Angel vs Devil.

      And of coarse just as in the beginning with the connotation of Religion & the grace of the Lord. The holy spirit, ( what we are shown regarding him always refering the bible & the righteous one… In the end starts with the beginning with the ” Angel, The lord always wins. The light shines on darkness. Light & Dark. Night & Day.

      … And it shows the Darkness ( Tommy Lee) The Devil Leaving!

      As he talks to the lord we see the sun ever so bright rise in the background as if to say he has ( Samuel L Jackson) has the Holy Spirit in him again. He won against the evil.

      Look up and speak to the Lord as he did &…..

    • I think you might be closest to what this is all about. I don’t agree that this is either God or the Devil. There is no indication that any of these two characters are any of these. Our society very much expects us to chose a religion or chose to believe or not. Truth is, that most people are atheists or agnostics. Many of us are born in to a culture or religion of a certain belief, but most of us chose not to believe. However, we are very little spoken of, spoken to and not really outspoken either.

      Both Black and White have good points and there is no one who can decide that one path is the correct one – it is all up to each one of us, with free will, to decide what is right for us.

  6. One point that should be mentioned. McCarthy’s favorite books are “Paradise Lost” and “Moby Dick” (the former being pertinent here). And it is a common plot device in his books for his characters, often but not always the villains, to break out into Miltonian Satanic monologue. The content typically resembles White’s nihilistic, fatalistic, musings. Do not take that to mean that White resembling Satan, or becoming Satan, represents McCarthy’s opposition to those ideas. It isn’t obvious where McCarthy stands on the Devil in his works.

  7. Maybe White was already dead and Black was trying to get White to believe in God and in life eternal so White could enter the gates of heaven. Only when Black finally realized there was no saving White he let him go where ever it is, maybe hell…

  8. Anyone notice the music also playing at the end and had mentioned how much he loved music, after he stated that he would be back there to meet with him again the next time? 🙂 Just a little thought. 🙂

  9. I believe the movie is more metaphorical, mr. Black is trying to make Mr. White believe in faith so he can go to heaven, if Mr. Black doesn’t make Mr. White believe then he will go to that dark place. I believe that Mr. white committed suicide and he is between realms, Mr. Black read the newspaper that said Mr. White committed suicide, Mr. White thought it was a joke, I believe it actually happened and that’s why he is between worlds. Which leave Mr. Black questioning God as to why he was sent to convince Mr. White to believe in God. In the end Mr. white chose darkness.

  10. I appreciate the comments above. They were thought provoking and insightful. As I tried to interpret the movie, I saw not only a battle between faith and reason, but also the logical perspective that each one brings. Black, the man of faith, had peace and joy. He wanted to help others have that same peace and joy that in his mind only arises from a faith relationship with God. White. who appealed to reason, saw the world as dark and broken. To him the world was not worth living in, hence his nihilistic perspective and desire for suicide. I think both men realize that the world is unfair and harsh. It is filled with broken people living broken lives. And if that is all there is, then this life is not worth living. The only hope is a faith relationship with God. This faith results in life. And life with its positive view can find peace and joy in the midst of the brokenness. The final question breaks the 4th dimensional window. It is for the audience. Is faith enough even when you don’t hear God’s voice? That is a valid question. Actually everything in the movie presents thought that a person of faith and a person of only reason have to deal with. To not address those profound questions is to have a more shallow faith that needs to deal more adequately with the world around us. Honestly I feel like I have sought to deal with those questions with a spirit of self awareness, and I have not found faith in God wanting. Truly, it is the only thing that makes this life really worth living.

  11. I think that people are missing the point (I’ve read the more literal interpretations of this movie all over the internet). This movie is not about contrasting opinions on the existence or value of God. It’s not about saving White. It’s simply about the importance of loving your fellow man *regardless* of the outcome. This is what we are called to do – love people even though it is not always just and not always fruitful. Hopeless people exist. Ministering to them is more about YOUR salvation than theirs.

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