The Sunset Limited (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Sunset Limited (2011)

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 "I could take that statement one of two ways,
but I'm gonna take the good way as that's my nature."

The last decade of Tommy Lee Jones' career has raised a number of interesting questions about the man.  He's the most exquisitely understated actor working, and near the end of his life has dedicated the majority of his career exploring various facets of Christian faith.  It began with his directorial debut in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and reached the apex of Old Testament vengeance in No Country For Old Men.

He's also picked roles that allow him to analyze aspects of the New Testament faith.  His performance in the sadly ignored Paul Haggis film In the Valley of Elah (unfairly maligned, but it did follow the reprehensible Crash) was one of the most purely "Christian" performances I've seen.  Jones played a man so secure in his faith he relied on it to protect and follow him no matter where he went, even though it meant eventually following his son into the grave.

Now he's working from another piece of work by Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, Child of God), one of my absolute favorite writers, who has been so obsessed with Old Testament justice I've rarely seen a glimpse of genuine salvation through his words.  In fact, the best moment of his triumphant Blood Meridian comes from an argument that God cannot be understood through forgiveness, but that true belief comes through blood and war.

Here, in The Sunset Limited, we're presented with the ultimate paradox of McCarthy's religious logic and Jones' late career examination of faith.  It documents the late morning conversation between the Professor (Jones, labeled as "White" in the credits) and the Believer (Samuel L. Jackson, labeled as "Black).  The Believer caught the Professor as he was trying to hug the business end of a moving train and struggles to understand why he wants to die.  The Professor wants to know how a man who has lived his life on Old Testament virtues suddenly adopts a seemingly nonsensical brand of New Testament forgiveness.  By the end of the morning, neither one of them will change, and therein lies the point.

I don't approach The Sunset Limited very lightly.  The level of religious discourse the United States engages in is appalling, with different facets within the very same faith arguing about how best to interpret the exact same text.  This isn't a culture or religion-specific phenomenon, the Koran has had the same issues with interpretation as the Bible, but a film this smart and involving about religion could only come from this time in America.

My own faith has long since evaporated into the fears of a young kid, but I still admire the optimism other people approach the eternal.  This is why the Believer's words mean so much to me.  He acknowledges the limitations of his faith while still exploring the possibility he is wrong yet certain he is correct.  That his life has been caked in so much blood and violence is a testament to the healing power of belief.  McCarthy's words do not step wrong for a moment, showing how delighted the Believer is in reliving his moments of violence but sharing equal time with the redemption and genuine joy he gets out of trying to lead people toward the light today.

The same level of empathy goes toward the Professor, who is an atheist through and through and has adopted a solipsistic stance that has left him with suicide as the only happy alternative to living out the rest of his life.  McCarthy's words are so accurate because they show him as another scared person trying to live his life in the only way he finds acceptable.  It's not like the annoyingly self-satisfied The Ledge, whose protagonist decides to kill himself because the concept of God is silly and he can't keep having sex with the girl he wants to.  This is a man with genuine fear of staying alive, not of dying, and looks forward to having nothing to look forward to.

Both the Believer and the Professor want to die, to satisfy their curiosity if nothing else.  Jones and Jackson utilize their unique screen chemistry to the fullest.  I don't know why more directors haven't paired the two together after their amazing showing in Rules of Engagement (even if the film didn't play to their strengths the best way).  Jones' understatement and Jackson's flair for the dramatic make their eventual role reversal all the more powerful, giving reasons for the Atheist believe in death and the Christian to stay alive.

Tommy Lee Jones' direction in The Sunset Limited isn't going to set off any Lumet comparisons for use of limited space, but it's still quite good even if the visual metaphors are a bit obvious at times.  What interests me more, and goes back to why Jones has had such an intriguing late career renaissance, is that he acted as Executive Producer as well.  Whatever The Sunset Limited is to Jones, it's clearly very personal and has struck a cord with the works of McCarthy.

To white, my own bit of religious and social bias has revealed itself during this review.  Maybe it's because I'm an optimist, or because I consider this film to be about matters more spiritual than racial, but the characters are Believer and Professor than Black and White.  I understand McCarthy is still playing with common stereotypes as they both chuckle a number of times about being in the position of "white intellectual" and "black spiritualist", but that reading simplifies the story too much.

Instead we have broader emotions - rage tempered by optimism, and belief viewed through oblivion.  McCarthy's script understands this all too well, leading us out to the racial aspects while surrounding the film with its broad current of tolerance.  The Sunset Limited is damn good, and left me with evidence of the opposite conclusion the Professor comes to.  Even if I'm not entirely convinced, movies like this are a great way of letting us all know we're not alone in the dark.

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The Sunset Limited (2011)

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones.
Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy.
Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

Posted by Andrew

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