Review: That Evening Sun (2009)
by Jennifer Boulden
If we all, as Thoreau wrote, live lives of quiet desperation, there are times in any life when the desperation comes to a head and ceases any pretense of quietude.
The events in the small film That Evening Sun transpire at just such a time on a rural Tennessee farm gone to seed. Melodrama does not necessarily translate into a good film, but thanks to the solid ensemble of actors working at their peak in That Evening Sun, not only are the drama and tension heightened throughout, so is the fun of watching this riveting story climb to its transcendent climax.
First-time feature writer/director Scott Teems adapted William Gay‚Äôs classic Southern gothic short story ‚ÄúI Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.‚Äù The story follows widowed farmer Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), who escapes his nursing home with the intent of living out his remaining days more authentically on his old homestead, only to discover his son has rented his home to a local ne‚Äôer-do-well‚Äôs family, the Choats. Played with slow-burning menace yet uncanny empathy by Ray McKinnon, the skeevy Lonzo Choat wastes no time in telling the landowner he is not welcome on the farm and has no legal right to be there. The Choats have never had any land, and have been given a chance to buy the farm outright. When Abner refuses to leave, the two men find themselves in an untenable d√©tente.
From this simple land conflict between generations and classes, Teems fleshes out the spare short story. The result is a lean screenplay that never falters in bringing the two charismatic leads into increasingly heated conflict. Combining humor and hubris, That Evening Sun is a case study in economic storytelling, almost classic Greek in its sensibilities. There is nary a moment that does not inform, enhance and propel the sense of character and setting that makes this taut film so powerful.
The story is unapologetically Southern yet avoids the pitfalls of regional clich√©s. Instead, Teems shows the thorough, true understanding and appreciation for the rural land, its people and their ways. Rather than he grating caricatures more often found in films about the South, he paints each specific character with the detailed brush of a portrait artist.
It‚Äôs a beautiful event in cinema when finely drawn characters land in the hands of actors who seem born to play the roles. Such is the case in That Evening Sun, which should result in more than one Academy Award nomination for its cast, starting with Holbrook.
Holbrook channels the loneliness of his Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild and adds layer after salty layer, creating a feisty protagonist we can adore one moment and pity in the next. His wrinkled visage sags with an old man‚Äôs bone weariness, while his shoulders carry the earned respect of a lifelong, successful farmer. Holbrook‚Äôs blue eyes alone hold acting classes: sparkling with Abner‚Äôs distinctively mischievous wit and intelligence; welling full of sadness, grief and regret; and icing over with a steely, mean determination to make things right at any cost. It‚Äôs a gravelly role Clint Eastwood might relish, and yet not play half as soulfully.
From their first encounter, Holbrook‚Äôs eyes blaze with anger and contempt whenever he shares a scene with McKinnon (an Oscar winner for his 2001 short film, The Accountant and co-producer here). As Lonzo Choat, McKinnon staggers, swaggers and lurches around his rent-to-own farm, six-pack in hand, with hollow bravado and good intentions turned sour. It is character actor McKinnon‚Äôs best work, a ferocious performance tempered and made credible by its subtleties in quieter moments.
Four characters round out the cast and give moral context to the two alpha males pitted against each other. The other Choats are Ludie (the ever-impressive Carrie Preston) and Pamela, their 16-year-old daughter played by Mia Wasikowska, whose gentle presence softens and brightens the screen as a counterpoint to the gruffness of the leads.
Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure, No Country for Old Men) plays Meecham‚Äôs best friend and neighbor Thurl, just as grizzled as Abner, yet more neutered by old age. Corbin‚Äôs role is small, almost underplayed, yet his scenes with Holbrook are among the film‚Äôs most touching. Co-producer Walton Goggins does his best with the least interesting role of the film as the slighted lawyer son.
The producers make good use of a small budget. Graceful cinematography by Rodney Taylor and an unobtrusive score by Chris Penn also elevate this beyond most Southern indies. The weakest point unfortunately is the denouement, which is Teems‚Äô own and feels grafted onto the film rather than an organic progression from the powerhouse climax (Gay‚Äôs short story ends several beats earlier, sans complete resolution).
A lyric loneliness infuses the production. Somewhere in the middle of That Evening Sun, a scarecrow made of a wispy nightgown billows in the breeze: an elegant, ethereal, empty warning in a neglected field that has been all but forgotten in the struggle for it. Throughout the film, variations of certain plaintive Jimmie Rogers songs‚Äîincluding one with the eponymous line sung by Holbrook‚Äîsupply a haunting musical elegy to times gone by and times that can never be.
The uncontrollable passage of time and accompanying loss of independence is painful for Holbrook‚Äôs octogenarian character from the film‚Äôs first most moments, and yet is a necessary inevitability no matter which way the war between him and Lonzo ends. Much as any of us may hate to see it, that evening sun goes down every night.
Still, there is beauty to be found in the process. In creating such real people, the film achieves an unpretentious universality supported by the integral themes of mortality, prejudice, guilt, and forgiveness and buoyed by the strong performances of its cast. And Teems‚Äô first feature reminds us that sometimes it is still possible to find both small, brilliant films and fleeting, brilliant sunsets on our horizon.
Neither should be missed.