The Sunset Limited

In the twenty-four-month period from  2005 to 2006, Cormac McCarthy released three works. The first, a bracing, pulp-thriller called No Country for Old Men  was such an excellent  paragon of its genre that it was translated almost verbatim into a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture (beating out There Will Be Blood, among others). The second, The Road, was a post-apocalyptic meditation on fatherhood and the value of human existence that instantly inserted itself into the western canon in as forceful a way as almost as any book since Tony Morrison’s Beloved. The third was a weird little play called The Sunset Limited.

I stumbled across The Sunset Limited when I was reading McCarthy’s Wikipedia page recently and noticed that he had recently written this play that I had never heard of. Another click told me that  the play had also been adapted into a TV movie by HBO, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones . I found this quite intriguing, particularly since I had never heard of the movie and suspect that most people have not. A few more clicks validated my decision to subscribe to HBO — if you have HBO-GO you can watch the full 90-minutes on their website, which I did last night.

In the movie, Samuel L. Jackson (named “Black”) tries to convince Tommy Lee Jones’s character (named “White) not to kill himself (the title refers both to the train that Jones attempted to throw himself under and the death itself represented by that train). The entire movie takes place in Jackson’s run-down apartment. It becomes quickly very apparent that the work is very purely an allegory — Jackson is an angel sent by God  to persuade Jones that life is worth living, Jones is the manifestation of evil in the world trying to argue that it’s not. They both make pretty good points.

In the very limited coverage of this work that Google turns up, only a few people describe Jackson as an angel, and there’s some sense in which McCarthy leaves the question open. Indeed one of the best parts of the work is that Jackson’s character is exactly what a Christian God that existed in this world would send as his emmisary — he’s a real person; he has a real story and lives in a real apartment. He’s a black preacher who was once a criminal in a different life but has found Jesus. He is infinitely good, kind, caring, forgiving, and his only want is to do the Lord’s work.

Thus, I think many viewers have interpreted Jackson’s angel as merely a very religious man whose reasons are very good and whose efforts are very admirable. They are wrong to assume this or at least to assume only this, since McCarthy makes it very clear that Jackson’s character is indeed supernatural. He can perform any act of multiplication instantly in his head; he reads Jones’s character’s mind when Jones is silent; he kept Jones from jumping in front of a train when Jones had never noticed he was even there. Jackson also calls a place the “Jail House” that seems to be more than just a prison, and he has heard God’s voice in a context that implies that Jackson might have been resurrected from the dead. He’s definitely an angel, and part of the allure of the work is how real he seems. McCarthy has written exactly what an angel would look like if he were a part of our broken world. Jackson’s only noticeably divine to the bare extent necessary to do the job.

It helps in the movie that Jackson plays this compelling character with tremendous power and charisma. He’s great in the role. One thing that makes this movie so strange, however, is that Tommy Lee Jones acting is horrible for almost all of it (his character does get in some great monologues in the end). His character seems too squirrely to be real, his dialogue readings are mannered, odd, and forced. He doesn’t sound like a real person, and it’s jarring. While watching, I thought Jones was just mailing in his performance (I joked to my friends that he probably didn’t read the script before trying to film it) until I discovered that Jones directed the movie. Like I said, it’s a weird work.

This weirdness partially excuses Jones’s poor performance in the Sunset Limited, which can be at least mildly attributed to the play’s dialogue itself being quite strange and difficult to perform in a naturalistic way. That’s why (I assume) the play is subtitled: “A Novel in Dramatic Form”. Cormac McCarthy is not first and foremost a playwright, and he doesn’t write dialogue that fits neatly into movie format. Try acting out the dialogue of the Road verbatim and you’ll get the general idea. Thus, if you’re going to be put off by it sounding a bit clipped and archaic, you’re going to want to change the channel.

The work is in its own right a fascinating moral discussion of a piece with the Grand Inquisition scene in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It’s a great exemplar of the work that mixes philosophy and literature (often noted in Russian literature), and should be read from that perspective. I also think, though, that the play casts a fascinating light on the other, more noted works produced by McCarthy in this period – No Country and The Road. One way it does this is to show the increasing significance of moral philosophy as a subject of McCarthy’s work, particularly The Road, which the author has described as being about human goodness.  Another is to demonstrate McCarthy’s increasing interest in what I can only describe as genre fiction: No Country, the crime thriller; The Road, filed safely in sci-fi under the sub-heading Post-Apocalypse; Sunset. devotional literature. At the least, it’s very far outside the bounds of most serious fiction, a place where angels seldom intrude. During McCarthy’s eigth decade (he’s 78 now), one gets the sense that he was aiming to grapple with existential questions more directly in part by removing distractions in order to speak more plainly– to express his message in The Road he had to get rid of all civilization. In The Sunset Limited, he seems to have forgone humanity entirely to speak with the angels, and yet his work is no less vivid for having done so.