Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Sunset Limited

Hats off to HBO! They have set the standard of excellence for original programming for over 30 years. No other cable or broadcast network can match their achievements. They take risks that others would not dare to consider. Case in point—their latest film, The Sunset Limited. Can you imagine trying to pitch this to any other network? A story about two characters locked in one room for 90 minutes. No special effects. No car chases. No explosions. No action. In fact, no extras or background actors. That’s right just two actors. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

But it gets even better. The movie is basically a philosophical dialogue about the nature of belief, the meaning of life, the existence of God, the human condition, faith and science. Can you hear the laughter? Most network or studio executives probably wouldn’t have given you time to finish your pitch. More than likely, they would have called security and had you escorted from the building.

But HBO is an innovator. They see possibilities where others do not. I’m sure that’s why they support projects such as The Sunset Limited. The story opens in a rundown apartment in a dilapidated neighborhood where two characters are locked in a struggle of life and death. The professor, Tommy Lee Jones, has tried to commit suicide while the preacher, played by Samuel L. Jackson, has saved his life and convinced him to return to his apartment. From this point on, the two men go back and forth in a philosophical discourse on the topic of faith versus science.

At stake is the professor’s life. He is a man who has no belief in God, people or himself and is convinced he deserves to take his own life. To say he is in a very dark place is an understatement. On the other hand, the preacher is a man with his own demons, convinced he can save the professor by sharing his encounters with God while serving hard time in prison. But the professor views death as a comfort, doesn’t want an afterlife of any sort and is content with his undoing. He says, “If I thought that in death I would meet the people I’ve known in life, I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate horror.”

Can the preacher save him? Can the preacher hear the right words from God? It’s deep stuff—compelling and captivating for the entire 90 minutes. I never got bored. The dialogue was totally believable from start to finish. You could feel the tension and struggle of both characters.

Folks, television doesn’t get any better than this. Obviously, a story like this would never work without two heavyweight actors of the quality and caliber of Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. Both drive the story, and you can expect them to be nominated for future Emmys.

The Sunset Limited is based on a play by Cormal McCarthy and is a perfect example of the kind of movies I wish Christian filmmakers would tackle. I consider The Sunset Limited to be more Christian-focused than most typical Christian movies are in the usage of Christian content.

This isn’t a preachy movie. Both presented compelling arguments. It’s clear that it was made for a mainstream audience. The Sunset Limited gives you something to think about. It presents the issues of faith, God, and the human condition in such a way that the audience must ultimately decide for themselves who’s right or who’s wrong. Do I have the right to take my own life? Do I have the right to believe and do what I want to.

The material is treated with intelligence and is never heavy-handed. No formula. No agenda. And yet, the grace of God shines through in this film. For those who want to make a Christian film or become a media missionary, I consider The Sunset Limited to be required viewing. I think we can all learn a thing or two about how to make a movie that talks about God in a way that actually speaks to people.

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