“I have the feeling that if I died in the middle of the night they’d just roll me out and roll the next one in,” says Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) in That Evening Sun. “And nobody would even notice.” He’s talking about the retirement home he just recently “escaped” from and his desire never to return. Meecham acknowledges that the people there treated him well, but he just wants to be back at home among the things that made up his life and the place that reminds him of his wife. His desire is peculiar to his own situation, but he soon discovers that the concept of ‘home’ is universal.
The eighty-year old Meecham makes his way home only to find a teenage girl sunbathing in his front yard. Pamela (Mia Wasikowska) calls for her mom, Ludie (Carrie Preston), who explains that Meecham’s son has rented the house to the family with the option to buy. Holbrook’s contemplative face takes a darker turn and soon Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) pulls up the drive and the tension of the tale rears it’s head. Meecham knows Choat as a lazy, thieving, no-good piece of white trash, and he’s not afraid to express his thoughts to the man’s face. Choat returns the sentiment with equal amounts of venom, and the standoff begins with Meecham moving into a small exterior cabin once used by farmhands. Both men claim legal right to the land and house, and both refuse to leave.
What follows is a slow build of small annoyances and face-offs that lead to a dramatic final conflagration. Meecham learns of Choat’s hatred of barking dogs and soon returns to his shack with a spunky mutt that refuses to shut up. It’s a minor miracle that particular scenario manages to end on both tragic and comedic notes. A drunken confrontation ends with gunfire and a visit from the police. Meecham’s dealings with Choat and his own son, Paul (Walter Goggins), reveal as much about himself as it does the other characters and story. Choat is trying to start a home for his family, but should past transgressions make that an impossibility? Threats are made, anger and resentment grow, and the inevitable conclusion twists into something unforeseen… not in any kind of shocker sense, but in that what you think is a formulaic structure becomes something different. It’s the general path you’d expect the film to take based on the setup alone, but That Evening Sun surprises with new and unpredicted turns all along the way.
Holbrook is a true marvel to watch here. If there were justice in Hollywood he would win a Best Actor Oscar for the film (which would also make up for being robbed two year’s ago for his supporting performance in Into the Wild). His performance is subtle and understated but punctuated with bursts of anger and loss. McKinnon, who also produced the film, helps turn the normally two-dimensional redneck Choate into a living, breathing human being. He’s incredibly flawed and unlikable at times, yet McKinnon manages to give him the spark of possible redemption. One of the many unexpected joys to found in the film is the brief appearance of Barry Corbin as Meecham’s neighbor, Thurl Chessor. (I haven’t mentioned it yet, but how great are the character names in this movie?) In a film sprinkled with humorous dialogue he manages some of the best, all while portraying a caring friend also dealing with the twilight years of his life. Wasikowska’s performance is a little uneven at times as she plays the awkwardly innocent teen with both accuracy and exaggeration, but she has a definite and curious talent. Her current and upcoming resume suggests quite a bit of experience ahead with roles in the recent Defiance and the upcoming Amelia as well as Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland.
Director Scott Teems also wrote the screenplay for That Evening Sun (from a story by William Gay) and he shows a sharp appreciation for people at various stages of age and economic existence. Characters big and small become real people through his words and the actors’ performances, and the setting comes to life through his images. Flashbacks of Meecham and his wife Ellen (Dixie Carter) find dialogue unnecessary as the couple’s love for each other is evident in their faces and in their movements. A broken post, an empty house, meal time at the retirement home, a knowing glance… these images speak volumes about the characters and their disparate situations. That Evening Sun engages through these characters and it does so beautifully.
That Evening Sun won this year’s SXSW Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature as well as the Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Cast.
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