The Sunset Limited


The Sunset Limited. 2011. Tommy Lee Jones, director. United States.

“So what am I supposed to do with you, Professor? Black asks White. Written by Cormac McCarthy, the encounter between White and Black has since been adapted for HBO by Tommy Lee Jones.

It has been observed that the title, The Sunset Limited, is perhaps metaphorical: “To ride the Sunset Limited is to take the final journey, to die, to ride west of everything”. Set entirely in the dilapidated flat of Black, the viewer meets White. White is a professor prevented by Black from taking that ride. The Sunset Limited is one long dialogue and the overarching interest of that conversation, for Black, is to dissuade White from returning to the platform of the train station; a platform off of which White had intended to jump.

Black is a Christian. He wants White to entertain the possibility that what White lacks is the experience of the love of God. White considers the idea of God nonsense. Although the vocabulary of Black is more elementary, and although he lacks the formal education of White, Black is shrewd. The longer he can delay White, the more likely it will be that White will not return to the train station. A decision to commit suicide can be one of impulse and, over and over, Black employs tactics simply to delay the departure of White.

White, however, is not an impulsive man. In a theme permeating the works of McCarthy, a sense exists that the world of the past is dying and that, in the world of the future, not all will find a home. White sees no purpose in “hanging around”.

Black and White possess different systems through which meaning is discerned. An interest is the source from which each has drawn meaning. Black has a history in prison. He served time for murder and, while doing so, almost killed another man. His is a wisdom which stems from his experience. He even attributes his mathematical skills to this source: “Numbers is the black man’s friend. You quick with numbers you can work the mojo on your brother. Confiscate the contents of his pocket book. You get lots of time to practice that shit in the jailhouse”. White, in contrast, has lived in the world of ideas and thoughts. His knowledge of the dying world is intensely personal: “That’s what an education does. It makes the world personal”.

The nihilism of White – a nihilism too superficially assumed to exist in his creator McCarthy – presents a formidable foe to Black. It may be, though, that the viewer is witnessing not a battle between the persons of Black and White but rather between the black and white within the human person; an internal dialogue between the modern and the post-modern or between the spirit and the intellect.

Black encapsulates his own approach to life when he tells White that “if it aint got the lingerin scent of divinity to it then I aint interested”.  This is yet another theme permeating the works of McCarthy; a sacramental sort of imaging of the presence of God in the world. This motivates Black to interact with others as brothers and sisters whereas, for White, sensitive neither to God nor others, the viewer encounters someone having drawn a conclusion similar to Sartre’s Garcin.

The Sunset Limited does not have an MPAA rating.

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