Ab­sa­lom, Ab­ner’s song

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That Evening Sun, drama, rated PG-13, CCA Cin­e­math­eque, 982-1338, 3.5 chiles “When the taxi­cab let old man Meecham out in the dusty road by his mail­box, the first thing he no­ticed was that some­one was liv­ing in his house.” Th­ese sad, slightly omi­nous words openWil­liam Gay’s short story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.”

This film adap­ta­tion by writer-di­rec­tor Scott Teems opens with scenes that take place a lit­tle while ear­lier: can­tan­ker­ous 80-some­thing Ab­ner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) is with­er­ing away from bore­dom in a nurs­ing home, where his har­ried lawyer son Paul (Wal­ton Gog­gins) has de­posited him. Not ready to be put out to pas­ture just yet, Ab­ner packs a bag, walks out the front door, hops in a cab, and heads home to his farm in Ackerman’s Field, Ten­nessee.

Ab­ner dis­cov­ers, though, that Paul has leased the Meecham homestead to the fam­ily of a drunken lo­cal ne’er-do-well named Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) and given them an op­tion to buy it. Be­wil­dered and fu­ri­ous, Ab­ner re­fuses to leave the premises. He holes up in the farm’s ram­shackle share­crop­per’s cabin, where all of his be­long­ings have been stored, un­til he can straighten things out.

Oh no, you might think. Here comes the next in­stall­ment in old-coot cin­ema. Films like last year’s Gran Torino tend to en­no­ble char­ac­ters like Ab­ner, paint­ing them as al­most mythic grand­fa­therly fig­ures who start out as dis­agree­able lon­ers but then con­nect with a younger gen­er­a­tion, find their softer sides, and re­deem them­selves with friends, fam­ily, or the com­mu­nity. Much like Gran Torino’s Walt Kowal­ski, judg­men­tal, cranky Ab­ner be­friends, ad­vises, and pro­tects a teenage girl, in this case Lonzo’s


un­happy daugh­ter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska), and de­fends him­self and his “home” with a gun that he keeps on his bed­side ta­ble as he sleeps.

But That Evening Sun is less con­ven­tional than Gran Torino and many of its other pre­de­ces­sors. Teems elim­i­nates syrupy sen­ti­ment, en­dear­ing cur­mud­geonly man­ner­isms, melo­dra­matic plot twists, and the pre­dictable nar­ra­tive arc. He even de­fies Chekhov’s no­to­ri­ous dic­tum that a gun in­tro­duced in the first act should al­ways go off by the third. Teems’ char­ac­ters and their strong wills are the heart of this story; they out­strip any dra­matic py­rotech­nics.

Teems also re­sists the temp­ta­tion to paint his char­ac­ters in clear black or white, as dis­tinctly good or bad. As the story pro­gresses, Ab­ner be­comes less lik­able, less re­li­able, and more pa­thetic than sym­pa­thetic. When Paul tells him, “You’re a mean son of a bitch,” you be­gin to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that Ab­ner might be as prob­lem­atic as Lonzo. Is he just cling­ing un­rea­son­ably to the past, try­ing to recre­ate it while mak­ing amends for some mis­step? Sur­pris­ingly, Teems gives Lonzo depth and com­plex­ity, too. He al­lows us to see things from Lonzo’s point of view and un­der­stand his des­per­a­tion: the farm rep­re­sents a chance to start over, to make a good life for his fam­ily, and to shore up his frag­ile man­hood and dig­nity. Dis­ap­pointed and per­haps ashamed at the way their lives have turned out, the men have more in com­mon than they— or we— ini­tially sus­pect.

The per­for­mances are nat­u­ral and im­pres­sive across the board. McKinnon deftly cap­tures the frus­trated man and the scared lit­tle boy lurk­ing be­neath Lonzo’s vi­o­lent, ma­cho ve­neer. Barry Corbin, as Thurl Ches­sor, Ab­ner’s old neigh­bor and friend, pro­vides some hammy goodold-boy lev­ity. But the film clearly be­longs to Holbrook, who em­bod­ies Ab­ner with award-wor­thy in­ten­sity, depth, and sin­cer­ity.

There’s some­thing deeply, au­then­ti­cally South­ern about this film. Teems, a na­tive of Ge­or­gia, has lov­ingly cap­tured the sin­gu­lar at­mos­phere of the re­gion (with help from cin­e­matog­ra­pher D.P. Rod­ney Tay­lor): lush, dense green­ery; the mu­sic of June bugs and crick­ets; the heav­i­ness of hu­mid­ity; and an over­all sense of lan­guor. Skill­fully ob­served de­tails and small mo­ments give ex­tra heft to a fairly sim­ple story, while the pa­tient in­sis­tence on tone and slow pac­ing makes for a lovely film that’s a wel­come respite from in-your-face Hol­ly­wood fod­der.

Yet That Evening Sun isn’t only a South­ern film. Ab­ner Meecham and Lonzo Choat, al­though they sound like char­ac­ters in a Faulkner novel, could be any men any­where in the world at any time. Ab­ner and Lonzo are hardly ex­em­plary: they’re both selfish, bull­headed, and spite­ful. But all they want is to se­cure their own lit­tle place in the world be­fore their time is up, and that makes them hu­man.

High on the list of uni­ver­sal hu­man con­cerns are age, re­gret, loss, and the feel­ing that we’re all run­ning out of time. Gay’s short story takes its ti­tle from lines in W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”: “I hate to see that evening sun go down/ ’Cause it makes me think I’m on my last go ’ round.” While Ab­ner is wait­ing for the cab that will take him back to his farm, he strolls by a wood­land stream and loses his pocket watch. As he searches for it, those very lines might well be run­ning through his mind. Just like Lonzo, just like every­one, he’s just looking for a lit­tle more time.

Coun­try for old men: Hal Holbrook, left, and Barry Corbin

That evening sun is nowhere in sight: Mia Wasikowska

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