DVD Review: That Evening Sun, starring Hal Holbrook, is a rich, quiet look at an older man trying to live out his days in the home (and memories) where he’s spent his entire life. It’s no sappy feel-good film, but it has a weary warmth that balances out the all-too-human meanness also on display.
As the Baby Boomers head for retirement age, we’re seeing more and more films—both mainstream and independent—that deal with the realities of aging, that tell stories about characters looking back on who they were rather than what they plan to do. Characters who are closer to the end of their lives than the beginning.
That Evening Sun is such a film, centered on a solid performance from Hal Holbrook. He’s playing Abner Meecham, an 80-year-old Tennessee man whose son (The Shield and Justfied’s Walton Goggins, who also produced the film) has shuffled him off to a nursing home. The film’s credits are barely over before Abner has flown the nursing-home coop and returned to his rural house, which he finds has now been rented (with an option to buy) to a family of what the older man calls “white trash.” Abner moves into a small sharecropper shack on the land and immediately clashes with the family’s father, Lonzo Choat (the always excellent Ray McKinnon from Deadwood).
Sure, we’ve seen variations of Abner and his tale before: in The Straight Story (with which That Evening Sun shares a languid, unhurried pace and appreciation for simple rural scenery), in Gran Torino, and most recently in Get Low. In fact, you could see That Evening Sun as a grittier, harder version of Up—they share similar themes and plot points. The cantankerous Abner’s beloved wife has died somewhat recently (she’s played in poignant flashbacks by Holbrook’s own wife Dixie Carter, who passed away in real life months after the film was released), and the Choat family’s teenage daughter attempts with varying success to befriend Abner. (She’s played by Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right, once again giving the impression of a long and acclaimed acting career ahead of her.) There’s even a scruffy but loyal dog found along the way.
Based on a very Faulkner-esque short story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down” by Tennessee author William Gay (though not to be confused with the actual Faulkner story of the same name), That Evening Sun is full of perfect small moments. Writer-director Scott Teems hovers lovingly over the still, green, pastoral landscapes of rural Tennessee, capturing not just the beauty of the region (especially at dusk) and the rugged, rustic charm of an old farmhouse, but also a powerful sense of place, of a timeless home.
But the film is no gentle nostalgia trip full of hugging and learning. Abner may be a bit on the contrary side, but through Lonzo the film also gets at a meanness in peoples’ hearts, sometimes born of fear and desperation, sometimes born of anger and frustration. There’s hateful violence in the film, but there’s also something else you don’t see in too many Hollywood films: the realization that few people are all good or all bad, that folks are complex and they don’t always behave according scripts or expectations. (This summer’s brilliant Winter’s Bone also gets at that same human dichotomy, coincidentally—or maybe not—also set in rural middle America, and also featuring McKinnon.)
Most of all, That Evening Sun shows us the sometimes stubborn strength and grit found in people who are not trying to change the world or others’ lives, but who simply want to be back home on the land they lived on, to stay close to their personal histories, both the warm memories and the sad regrets and grief.
More Films About Aging and Mortality from redbox:
- Solitary Man on DVD and Blu-ray (read my full review)
- The Last Station (read my full review)
- Crazy Heart (read my full review)
- Everybody’s Fine (read Jame’s full review)
- Harry Brown (read my full review)