Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: That Evening Sun


"That Evening Sun" is based on William Gay's story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," and the screenplay was written by Scott Teems.

I want to get that front and center, because the writing in this movie is outstanding.

What was written? A story about Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), an elderly Tennessee farmer who begins the movie in a nursing home, talked into staying there by his attorney son, Paul (Walton Goggins). Clearly he's miserable, and clearly he won't be staying because he walks out and begins to trek back to his farm in the steamy southern heat, before an opportunistic taxi driver takes him the rest of the way.

Upon his arrival, Meecham finds that his son has rented the farm to the Choats -- Lonzo (Ray McKinnon), Ludie (Carrie Preston) and their 16-year-old daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska).

Meecham's not pleased.

So Meecham stays.

If we couldn't tell by the start of this film, we know now that Meecham is as stubborn as they come, and he simply refuses to give up his property that he spent a lifetime building -- especially to the Choats. He squats in an old tenant shack and plans to stay until they leave or are driven out.

Holbrook is exceptionally good here. His brief Oscar-nominated performance in "Into The Wild" was vivid, raw and memorable, and he certainly has accomplished the same with this character.

Meantime, Lonzo's none too happy about the old man making himself at home on his new property. He's introduced to us as a proper redneck -- showing up in a pickup truck that barely runs, long hair and beard in full force ... a six-pack in tow. He reminds me of Dwight Yoakam's Doyle in "Sling Blade."

Some of the greatest dialogue in this movie comes when these two get to childishly jawing at each other.

Meecham: (Watching Lonzo approach him from the house) You even walk like it.
Lonzo: What's that?
Meecham: White trash -- you even walk like it (laughs to himself). It amuses me.
Lonzo: Must be great to be so funny.
Meecham: Helps pass the time.

Then ...

Meecham: How do you expect to keep a farm this size when you can't even keep the lawn mowed? You're in over your head, son.
Lonzo: Yeah, well we'll see about that ... stupid ol' coot. Hell, I'll just sit right here and outlive you, how bout that? (Takes a swig of beer). You're older than Moses anyhow, can't walk for sheeit, fallin' apart before my very eyes.

Hal Holbrook and Barry Corbin (Cooper Dunn/Dogwood Entertainment)
Clearly these guys need a voice of reason, and I found that to be in Meecham's neighbor, Thurl (Barry Corbin), who is excellent. We get some always appreciated old-man conversations between the two longtime friends, but they are interspersed with strategic glints of common sense Thurl throws at Meecham, who tends to be blind to it. Ludie also plays this part, if not moreso, having to talk sense into both Meecham and her husband, who are incapable of seeing what's coming down the road.

The fundamental problem here is that these guys are fighting over something that neither one of them can have. One thinks he can be a farmer, and the other thinks he can still be a farmer.

"That struggle gives them both purpose and also a distraction from the reality of their situation," says McKinnon.

As the movie progresses, however, a funny thing begins to happen -- we find ourselves thinking differently about these two guys than we did when we met them.

Initially, we root for the poor, helpless old man whose property was wrongfully taken away from him by the lazy, good-for-nothing, beer-swilling redneck. But curiously, we start to see that Meecham isn't all that good and Lonzo, while being terribly flawed and does some unspeakable things, is ruled by his own insecurities, anger and fear and is worthy of our sympathy.

This is subtly revealed to us in some very well-crafted scenes: An intimate talk between Lonzo and Ludie by the glow of the TV at night, and Meecham talking only to his dog -- who he adopted because it barked constantly and annoyed Lonzo -- about what put him in the nursing home and, more importantly, what made him leave.

And there's the scene where Meecham walks through his house alone again, playing an old familiar tune on the record player, reflecting on his late wife, seeing the haunting residue of pictures that once hung on the walls. We get the feeling he's not only mourning the loss of his house, but of his life overall ... getting a chilling glimpse of the way things are after we're gone and knowing that life goes on without you.

It sets the stage for a revealing conversation with his son, including:

Paul: There's nothing out there for you anymore, Dad. Things change. Life goes on. And you gotta go on with it.
Meecham: Life goes on, huh?
Paul: For those who let it.
Meecham: I'm an 80-year-old man with a bum hip and a weak heart. How much life you think I got left to go on with? I'm no fool, Paul. The road ahead ain't long and it ain't winding. It's short and straight like a goddamn poisoned arrow! But it's all I got. And I deserve to do with it as I please.

Things inevitably escalate to some pretty grim proportions, including a grisly retaliation by Lonzo, on whom Meecham called the cops because of a drunken rage against his wife and daughter. We see Lonzo's retaliation coming a mile away, but we don't anticipate Meecham's response, which is sickly hilarious.

The ending I thought to be a bit ambiguous, especially after what we see silhouetted in a raging fire that nicely turns this story on its ear. From there, the film somewhat dissolves into a series of images, while I was expecting a little more closure.

But if we let them simmer, it's in those images that we can piece together the rest of the story, and reflect on the decidedly unambiguous messages the film itself may convey.


Monica E. Smith said...

"We get some always appreciated old-man conversations between the two longtime friends"...great line, Jeremy.

I've just added this one to my queue in Netflix. Thanks for the head-up.

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