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The God Factor: Big questions from a small film

March 14, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Art is maddeningly dynamic. It does not, and will not, mean the same thing to one person as it does to another.

Depending on our individual lenses, histories, predilections and aversions for interpretation, each of us experiences a works of art in just that way: individually, personally, uniquely.

There’s no finer example of this than the recent HBO film “The Sunset Limited,” which continues to air regularly on the cable channel.

It is simple in its parts ― more like a play that was filmed for television. The cast is just two men ― known simply as “Black” and “White” ― in a single room, having a single conversation.

The story, based on the play of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, seems simple enough ― almost black and white, if you will.

White (Tommy Lee Jones) is a professor who encounters Black (Samuel L. Jackson) when he attempts to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of the Sunset Limited, a train speeding through the Bronx at 80 mph.

Black is a former prison inmate from Louisiana who, while serving time for murder and nearly dying in a horrific jailhouse brawl, found Jesus. White is a miserable and lonely man born of privilege who wants desperately for the suffering of this life to end.

When we encounter the twin protagonists, the foiled suicide attempt has already taken place. While the specifics of exactly what happened are never fully revealed, viewers are left to surmise that Black snatched White from the jaws of death and spirited him off to his tiny apartment to talk some sense into him.

White doesn’t want to be in Black’s apartment. At least, he says he doesn’t want to be there. “I should go,” is the suicidal professor’s oft-repeated refrain.

Jones’s White is a man of heavy-lidded eyes barely open beyond a squint, shadowed by thick eyebrows and furrowed brow. Jackson’s Black, in contrast, is wide-eyed and vibrant, delivering his folksy lines in rat-a-tat, profanity-laden explosions of energy reminiscent of the actor’s hallmark performance in “Pulp Fiction.”

Each man is firm about his spiritual beliefs. Black believes God exists, cares for humankind, intervenes in life on Earth, gives meaning to our suffering and our joy, and is the one thing that is true.

White is an avowed atheist who says he does not want God’s love and believes that life is one horrific journey of suffering toward its ultimate end in nothingness: death.

Black believes he is his brother’s keeper and that he is, in some way, responsible for White. White finds such notions repellant and is satisfied, if terribly unhappy, with his utter disconnection from fellow human beings.

They are at an impasse. There is no common ground. Yet, they engage in a dialogue ― a debate of wit if not intellect ― for 90 minutes that is so compelling it’s hard to look away even for a moment.

Perhaps the power of this unique piece of cinematic art is in the parallels it bears to the ongoing conversation about faith that so many of us passionately embrace or reject in the public square.

Is faith what ultimately makes sense of life, providing the strength to navigate its pitfalls and triumphs, and giving us the ability to be more than what we are?

Or is faith a fool’s notion, an irrational fairy tale and the opiate of the masses?

What’s more, is it possible for people to talk to each other when they hold such diametrically different points of view about the world? Can we even find common ground on which to have a conversation about anything of substance?

“The Sunset Limited” provides glimmers of hope in the men’s passionate yet thoroughly civil discussion. They aren’t just talking at each other. There’s a sense that they’re at least listening, even if they’re not finding any agreement.

Cracks in the heart of each man appear, and inroads seem to be made. But then one loses ground to the other and the cycle of discourse begins anew, without resolution.

Is there a clear winner as the dialogue draws to an abrupt end?

I suppose that depends on how each viewer’s heart and mind are oriented toward the world and the possibility of a hereafter. Zealots on either side of that coin will leave the film unsatisfied, perhaps even angered, by McCarthy’s refusal to give a clear answer to the questions he raises.

And perhaps that’s the enduring and refreshing strength of “The Sunset Limited.”

Engaging in civil discourse about the most important disagreements may not be an end in itself. But making that connection ― however difficult it may be and in spite of seemingly unbridgeable differences ― certainly is a beginning.

Even in the overbearing shadow of death.

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