Monday, April 26, 2010
It is so refreshing to witness a directorial debut of subtlety and nuance. Scott Teems, who also adapted the screenplay from William Gay's short story I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, is in full control of his material without ever trying to overshadow it. He is reserved in his approach, and it pays off. That Evening Sun is one of those films that is effectively slow. It clocks in at just under two hours, and although it never feels too long, it does move deliberately.
The 85-year-old Hal Holbrook, whose aged and worn-down face may remind some of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, stars assuredly as Abner Meecham, a Tennessee farmer who escapes from his nursing home only to find out that his lawyer son Paul (Walton Goggins) has rented his longtime farm to a dysfunctional family. Abner and the head of this family, Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) have a rough history. "I ain't no friend of yours," Abner tells Lonzo at one point.
With Lonzo keeping his wife Ludie (Carrie Preston) and daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska) firmly at his side, Abner has no choice but to set up shop in the aged sharecropper cabin, which has all of his stuff in it to begin with. Abner finds some solace in the friendship of a neighbor, Thurl Chessor (Barry Corbin), and begins to bond with Pamela. He cannot, however, for the life of him, convince his son to be on his side.
The battle between Abner and Lonzo is an interesting one, and is unlike other films of this type, such as Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino or Daniel Barber's Harry Brown. Although we root for Abner, there is part of us that realizes he may be operating outside of his rightful sphere. After Lonzo, in his usually drunken state, whips his wife and daughter with a garden hose one night, Abner instinctively calls the police. When Ludie shows up the next morning telling Abner he did the wrong thing, it becomes evident that he doesn't completely comprehend the situation he is in. To him, it is his land, end of discussion. For the Choats, this land represents one more chance at having a real family life.
There are very brief flashback sequences showing Abner with his deceased wife Ellen (Dixie Carter). Thinking of these scenes must be extremely emotional for Holbrook, now that Dixie Carter, his wife since 1984, died of cancer earlier this month. But Holbrook is a fighter; one can tell from how he carries himself throughout this film. Indeed, as he says to his son Paul, "I never was one to let things slide."
That Evening Sun also touches upon the complications of the aging process. Harping upon the issue could have been depressing; rather, Teems works with Holbrook, and Corbin to an extent, to give reasons to the characters' actions without being preachy and redundant. The opening scenes provide insight to the mundane and repetitive nature of the nursing homes. Abner went there after a brutal accident, on somewhat of a whim to try to make some company, and he ends up feeling lonelier than ever.
One of the achievements of That Evening Sun is that everyone involved appears to have bought into Teems' subdued vision. Yes, Holbrook and McKinnon have their fair share of fighting scenes, but they only come when they feel right. Both of their characters are aggressive by nature; one could even label them as "loose cannons," and it is only natural to them that they would fight for what they believe in. But the women provide a key presence in this film. Ludie often reminds her husband of the lifelong risks of prolonging this fight, while Abner is influenced by both Pamela and the dreamy presence of his wife to revert back to his more sensitive side.
And it is not just Holbrook who is excellent here. McKinnon, who also has a producing credit with co-star Walton Goggins, does a superb job of creating a multi-dimensional character out of what could have simply been the crazy next door neighbor. And Mia Wasikowska, who starred in Alice in Wonderland, continues to impress here. Most of her screen time is shared with Holbrook, and their scenes together are some of the film's highlights. She seems to have a promising career ahead of her.
The biggest problem I have with That Evening Sun is that it struggles to find its ground in the third act. I'm not convinced it ended on the right note, but I think, in a way, the film is set up for a troublesome finale from the get go, simply because the premise is so familiar. To its credit, the ending certainly isn't cliche or conventional, but it is not as emotionally involving as I would have expected. I was hit much harder by Gran Torino.
But this remains an admirable debut from Scott Teems, with plenty of fantastic performances to go around. It is satisfying to see a film that doesn't try to do too much. The film is simple in its approach, and its effectiveness is delicate, not overwhelming. Holbrook fans, of which I am sure there are many, are sure to submerge themselves in this performance. Particularly in the first half, the actor has a sharp, comedic delivery that gives him an edge few actors his age can attain. And he can also go to battle with a fiery persona like McKinnon's Choat. Any way you look at it, the performance is a feast.