An exceptionally fine example of regional indie filmmaking, “That Evening Sun” deserves savvy handling by a venturesome distrib to maximize its potential to attract auds and win prizes. Pic’s major selling point is Hal Holbrook’s career-highlight star turn as an irascible octogenarian farmer who will not go gentle into that good night. But this deliberately paced, richly atmospheric drama also boasts first-rate work by a splendid supporting cast and impressive production values that would pass muster in a much pricier production.
Working from an effectively spare script he adapted from a short story by William Gay, first-time feature helmer Scott Teems focuses on Abner Meecham (Holbrook), an 80-year-old Tennessee farmer who goes AWOL from the nursing home where he was shipped off by his lawyer son (Walton Goggins of TV’s “The Shield”).
Abner wants to spend what little time he has left at his country farm. Once he returns to his rural domain, however, he discovers his son has leased the property to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), a thirtysomething ne’er-do-well who’s living off income from a dubious insurance settlement.
It’s an intolerable situation for Abner, who has always viewed the entire Choat clan as “white-trash” inferiors. And he suspects, with ample justification, that Lonzo won’t be able to work the farm profitably enough to take advantage of the purchase option in the lease agreement.
So Abner opts to move into an old tenant shack on the farm, where he’ll simply bide his time until Lonzo, his long-suffering wife (Carrie Preston) and their nubile daughter (Mia Wasikowska) have to move out. Which, of course, only makes Lonzo more determined to stay — and to get rid of Abner, one way or another.
Teems takes his time allowing the tension to build and the animosity to percolate, slowly but steadily escalating the conflict between two equally strong-willed opponents. Despite his advanced years and apparent frailty, Abner initially appears to have the upper hand because, even though his days are numbered, time is on his side. (It also helps that he keeps a loaded gun in the shack.)
But Lonzo’s barely contained rage and not-so-quiet desperation — as well as his prideful determination not to be belittled in front of his wife and daughter — fuel him to do bad things and to threaten much worse. It says a great deal about McKinnon’s acting that even when Lonzo behaves most despicably, he retains a few shards of the audience’s sympathy because, as Abner bluntly notes, he’s obviously in way over his head.
In a role that all too easily could have come off as a stereotypical grumpy old man, Holbrook gets to the heart of the matter by illuminating all the facets of the unexpectedly complex Abner, affectingly conveying the bitter disappointments and anguished regrets that lurk below the surface of his taciturn gruffness and implacable resolve. It’s a vividly detailed yet subtly rendered performance.
Holbrook has some choice confrontations with McKinnon, a couple of revealing dialogues with Goggins and some deeply moving silent flashbacks with Dixie Carter, his real-life wife, as Abner’s dearly departed spouse. But he’s at the absolute top of his game during moments with Barry Corbin as Thurl, Abner’s grizzled neighbor and confidant. He also shines during three key scenes with Wasikowska, an Australian-born thesp who persuasively nails her character’s Southern accent.
Shot in and around Knoxville, Tenn., “That Evening Sun” benefits greatly from the eloquent widescreen lensing of Rodney Taylor — noteworthy for its muted color schemes and meticulously balanced compositions — and Michael Penn’s insinuating musical score.
Pic won the audience award for feature and a special jury prize for ensemble cast at the recent SXSW Film Festival. More accolades are likely to follow.