The Sunset Limited
– When I left out of here going to work this morning you wasn’t no part of my plans, but here you is.
– Doesn’t mean anything. Everything that happened doesn’t mean something else
The Sunset Limited is a movie about two worlds, worlds that cannot be united, that are essentially different and are attempting to communicate with each other. The world of the spiritual and of faith is represented by Samuel L. Jackson as an ex-convict who believes in God, while the world of the material and of science, but also of nihilism, by Tommy Lee Jones as a university professor who just tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of the express train. Jackson brings him into his flat and is not letting the professor go before confronting him.
The two perspectives are iron-manned, no cheap tricks and straw-manning involved, and this makes their discussion – taking place in a single room (the entirety of the movie) engaging until the end. Who and what is right? We have asked this for a long time and we always like a good fist fight between the two sides. The movie doesn’t present a winner but rather focuses on one’s inability to entertain both perspectives simultaneously, due to the insurmountable barriers between them.
Jones used to believe in culture, in the artistic values, but got to a point where he lost faith and saw them as utterly fragile, despite being the fundament of our civilisation. The world stopped believing in these things, and he stopped believing too, so he wants to jump in front of the train. His world has crumbled and he sees no exit, nothing that is worth living for.
Jackson was in prison for murder and while incarcerated, after a violent fight that put him in hospital struggling for life, he hears a voice telling him that he is alive only by the grace of God. He starts a ministry for junkies and ex-cons, lives in an apartment in a bad neighbourhood where he can’t afford to have any material things, because the junkies would steal them away. He sees an absence, something deeply missing in the professor and he tries to explain it, to point it out, to suggest it, but hits up against a wall of reason that doesn’t accept such language. The language of the believer and the non-believer are fundamentally different. Thinking is different for them, Jackson remarks that he never had a thought of his own, except for what came from the Bible. Jones needs time to think about answers, he lives in the world of thoughts and ideas, where the intellect has primacy, but for Jackson what he thinks doesn’t even begin to cover it, he looks for something else. Jones seeks the truth by questioning, he is a questioner, Jackson tries to live the truth.
The movie doesn’t try to muddle the two worlds, but to enunciate them as clearly as possible, with their limits and arguments. The material and the spiritual are two radically separated points of view which cannot be reduced to the other. The professor doesn’t think his ideas are a mere perspective of the world, but reality itself. He cannot concede that a different point of view can be entertained. Jones’ values and beliefs gradually erode into nothingness and he cannot see how to start anew. For him, the world is a forced labour camp from which a few innocent, but unlucky ones are lottery picked, daily, to be executed. Nothing and no one can bring meaning to him, he can’t find a fellow, a community, he can only find it in embracing death.
Jackson implores God to talk to him, to give him the words by which to show the professor that there is another valid perspective of life, other than that of materialism that, when pushed to the extreme, brings nihilism – the death of all values.
But God doesn’t talk to him, the two worlds can’t find a way to communicate and the professor leaves into the night.