By Colleen Glenn
In That Evening Sun, currently playing at The Kentucky Theatre downtown, director and screenwriter Scott Teems delivers a poignant tale about aging, independence, familial relations and the importance of place. Like Gran Torino before it, That Evening Sun portrays an elderly curmudgeon struggling to live his last years on his own terms. And, like the crusty Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook’s character is treated by those around him as a burden to his family who should, well, cooperate and die already.
The 84-year-old Holbrook turns in a fantastic performance, one that will surely be remembered as one of the best of his prolific film and stage career. Playing Abner Meecham, an elderly man reluctant to leave his life-long home for a nursing home, Holbrook turns in a complex and developed character study that makes human what might otherwise have been a flat caricature.
As the film opens, Meecham packs his belongings from the old folks’ home and sets out on foot for home. The home sends a taxicab after him to bring him back, but Meecham offers to pay the cabbie more to take him home, after he helps him find his lost pocket watch that has fallen out beside the stream. When the young driver complains they’ll never find the timepiece, Meecham scolds, “There’s no follow through in your generation,” as he discovers the beloved object—a gift from his now-deceased wife—in the grass.
Thus begins a story rife with tensions—between the young and the old, between the middle class and working class, and between the sentimental and the practical.
Meecham’s delight in returning to his hometown of Ackerman’s Field, Tennessee, is apparent, and the cinematography captures the pastoral beauty of the country in its green and simple splendor. Arriving to the family farm, however, Meecham is surprised to find a young teenager, Pamela Choat (Mia Wasikowska), sunbathing in front of his home. When he gruffly asks what she’s doing there, she explains that they live there, and have been there three months. Having only left three months before, Meecham is shocked to find that his son, the legal executor of his estate, did not consult his father on this decision, nor did he waste time in seizing control of his father’s property.
“There’s a difference between leaving home and forgetting a place all together,” explains the grizzled 80-year-old Abner Meecham to his son, a busy trial attorney, who seems to have no attachment to the house and land where he was raised.
The Choats are leasing the Meecham farm with an option to buy, and are fully determined to obtain the property. Having never owned land before, Lonzo and Ludie Choat (Ray McKinnon and Carrie Preston) see this as their big chance to make something of their lives.
Tension builds as each of the men refuse to back down: both Meecham and Choat declare the property as rightfully his, and thus the two begin a reluctant relationship as neighbors when old man Meecham moves into the old slave cabin on the property.
Meecham may be grumpy and stubborn as the dickens, but audience sympathy is surely with him, as Choat seems to be every bit the low-class loser Meecham declares him to be. When the drunkard Choat savagely beats his wife and daughter with a garden house, Meecham defends the women by firing his gun, interrupting the struggle, and by later going to the sheriff to have Choat arrested for the assault.
Disturbingly, everyone from his trusty old neighbor (the fabulous Barry Corbin) to his son Paul (Walton Goggins) admonishes Meecham for getting Choat in trouble with the law, chiding him for putting undue financial pressure (i.e. bail money) on an already struggling family. Granted, Meecham may have alternative and additional motives for having Choat arrested, but there is no doubt that he is truly appalled by Choat’s cruelty, who appears to be always teetering precariously on the edge of a violent explosion.
Confrontations ensue between the two men, predicting a violent, deadly climax. But the story, instead, peters out into a lukewarm ending in which Meecham makes peace with the fact that he’s too old to live independently on the isolated farm. Having set fire to the old cabin in an attempt to frame Choat for arson, Meecham slips and falls as the flames rage around him, only to be saved by his enemy, who pulls him from the flames. His son, who comes off as a punk until this moment, explains at the hospital that he has found a retirement community where his dad can grow tomatoes, and Meecham concedes he’ll go, but, ever the plucky individual, insists he’ll grow corn instead.
In what is a sort of epilogue, the final scene portrays Meecham walking through his old home which has been vacated by the Choats, who, though it is never explained, can be believed to have not been able to make the necessary payments to secure the property.
So, the moral of the story appears to be, “Do not go gently into that good night.” In other words, raise hell before you surrender.
Or, the moral may more likely be, be careful when adapting a literary work to the screen, as adaptations of short stories can be tricky. In the case of That Evening Sun, I have no doubt that the original short story, “I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down” by William Gay, is fantastic. Where the film falls short, in my opinion, is the film’s insistence on persisting in its slow pacing just when it needs to pick it up and deliver what it has promised since the opening credits: a story of suspense and palpable tension. Then again, perhaps the strength of this film is that it resists what Eastwood cannot in Torino: a Hollywood ending complete with a Western showdown and melodramatic death.
McKinnon, an actor who you may recognize from Deadwood and The Blind Side, turns in a terrific performance as the redneck struggling tooth and nail to climb the social ladder but who is too flawed to make it. But the movie is tainted by poor performances by Carrie Preston and Mia Wasikowska, who pounce on their lines as if they might forget them if they don’t spew them immediately after the other actors speak.
Music by the Drive-By Truckers and a score by Michael Penn that swims in remorse and memory complement the plot and its commitment to portraying the South in an authentic fashion.
The film’s most interesting sections are the places in which Meecham’s dreams and memories of his wife are illustrated onscreen: here, the camera recreates his unconscious state by breaking loose and wandering throughout the Meecham house, where his wife will always reside in his state of memory. Teems’ cinematography, in these moments, perfectly and gracefully articulates Meecham’s fear of leaving home.
Director Teems and actor and producer McKinnon, both natives of Georgia, possess a keen sensibility for crafting a story of (and from) the South, a region where place and history seem always at odds with progress and memory.