Absalom, Abner’s song
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