That Evening Sun – Southern Exposure, No Sentimentality Required (review)

I recently reviewed That Evening Sun, a Southern drama featuring one of Hal Halbrook‘s finest performances, for Las Vegas City Life. Read the review, below, or click here to link to it.

That Evening Sun

Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins. Directed by Scott Teems.

Dying is easy enough, particularly for veteran screen and stage actor Hal Holbrook. But Southern culture is hard to get right. For every perfectly turned piece like Goodbye Solo and Junebug, there’s a patronizing moral-lesson crowd pleaser like The Blind Side or a lame redneck comedy like Joe Dirt or a case of Southern-gothic overkill.

Scott Teems, for his feature directing and writing debut, deftly avoids those traps with a drama built on a slow-burning fuse, an increasingly bitter feud between an octogenarian and his old homestead’s current ne’er-do-well occupant. Teems, not coincidentally born in Georgia, adapted his screenplay from a William Gay short story, and mostly gets it right, aside from several sentimental flashbacks that add little to the narrative.

Holbrook, now 85, following his touching turn in 2007’s Into the Wild, is a late-career revelation as Abner Meecham, a retired farmer who has escaped a depressing nursing home and resettled on his old property in rural Tennessee. Trouble is, Meecham’s workaholic lawyer son, Paul (Walton Goggins), has already leased the rambling clapboard home and farmland to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), a 30ish local man with some demons of his own, including a chip on his shoulder and a propensity to turn violent when he drinks.

Meecham and Choat probably have more in common than they’d like to admit, including dysfunctional relationships with their respective spouses and offspring; to his credit, Teems avoids a heavy-handed approach in observing those commonalities.

Upon returning home, Meecham moves into a cramped sharecropper’s cabin on the property, within view of the main house, and settles into a siege against someone he refuses to view as anything except “white trash.”

Choat, tattooed and long-haired, clearly could overpower the old man. But Meecham has weapons at his disposal, including steely determination, a friendship with Choat’s kindly teenage daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska), and, yes, a gun. In one of the film’s several dry comic elements, there’s a scruffy dog that just won’t stop barking. For moral support, Meecham has his old friend Thurl Chessor (Barry Corbin, memorable in a small role), with whom he trades barbs on the latter’s front porch.

Day by day, Choat’s anger at the interloper builds, as does Meecham’s resentment at being cut off from his home, and his furniture, all linked up with memories of his late wife, Ellen (Dixie Carter, Holbrook’s real-life wife). One of several well-observed moments has Meecham wandering around his old place, looking with disgust at the dirty walls and unkempt rooms, haunted by thoughts of the house’s former appearance. He burns with bitterness and regret over all he’s lost.

Choat, having spent a lifetime being rejected by Meecham and others like him in their small community, is furiously working at a last-chance opportunity to make a good living for his wife, Ludie (Carrie Preston) and their daughter. Meecham represents an obstacle to that plan, an annoyance who refuses to budge.

Thankfully, Holbrook’s performance is absent of any conventional crustiness or curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold sappiness. Meecham is a tough guy, proud and taciturn, determined not to lose the battle of wills. As his life’s last war goes on, a sense of dread begins to build, and it’s pretty clear that a violent confrontation is unavoidable. But like everything else in That Evening Sun, there’s little about that clash that’s predictable.

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