Beyond Black & White


Here are some things you might expect to find on HBO: Prohibition-era gangsters. Post-Katrina New Orleans jazzmen. Vampires. Bill Maher.

Here’s something you might not expect to find: an intense ninety-minute closed-room debate about the existence of God, the authority of the Bible, the meaning of suffering, and the nature of salvation.

You’ll find just such an impassioned religious confab in The Sunset Limited, a Cormac McCarthy–scripted drama making its screen debut on HBO on Saturday, February 12. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and starring Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, this heartfelt (if creaky) two-person film conjures up an agonized encounter between a nihilistic university professor (Jones) and the devout Christian ex-con (Jackson) who has just stopped the academic’s suicide attempt.

In the former convict’s New York slum apartment, the Jackson character (designated in the credits as Black) tries valiantly to win the pessimistic professor (White) to faith. Bantering, bullying, asking questions, telling jokes, and relating a bloody jailhouse anecdote, Black strives to connect with...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.