Unlike the short story upon which it is based, That Evening Sun begins at the retirement home where Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) has lived for several months. A few quick shots of elderly people dissolutely playing cards or taking their medication are all it takes to establish that life here is no life at all.
Meecham stares out of the window; the glass reflects the verdant trees outside. Within moments, he is walking stiffly but determinedly down the road, making his escape.
Meecham's first scene in William Gay's original short story, "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," is the movie's second: He arrives back at his Tennessee farm only to learn that his son has rented it—with an option to buy—to a family headed by Lonzo Choate (Raymond McKinnon), a drinker and gambler who abuses his long-suffering wife (Carrie Preston) and emotionally curious teenage daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
From here, the trajectory of the film's plot is set. Meecham is 80 years old, cantankerous and unwilling to let a man he sees as unworthy live in his home. "Acquiescence" is not in his vocabulary. "I ain't gonna go down without a fight," Meecham says.
Choate sees Meecham's farm as his chance to finally have a stake and make something of himself. "Old people don't know when the fucking clock's run out," Choate tells Meecham with contempt.
They are both right, and the film's success is almost entirely due to the actors' skills at drawing from each character's polarity a wide range of emotional notes and reactions. McKinnon's Choate is mostly loathsome, but there are hints that he is not as irredeemable as Meecham believes. He, too, ain't gonna go down without a fight.
But the movie ultimately is Holbrook's.
His every word and physical gesture create a character about whom everything and somehow nothing is known.
Meecham can shoot a gun, grow corn, fix a truck.
He is admirable for refusing to let go of what is his, while at the same time piteous. He is unforgiving of Choate, of his upwardly mobile son (Walton Goggins), but most of all of himself: His very intractability has wrought unfortunate consequences from which there can be no turning back.
That Evening Sun is a long film—probably too long—made to feel longer by still-hot Southern days, fitful nights and unnecessary flashbacks of Meecham's deceased wife. But throughout, director Scott Teems preserves with vernacular perspicacity the Southern literary tradition from which Gay writes.
But the story of emotional intersection between past and future transcends geographical boundaries. Teems' choice to begin the film in the retirement home establishes that his protagonist will not resign himself to a conscripted fate, even if he must ultimately accept that the life he once had is over. Life changes and ends, as surely as the sun sets each evening.
That Evening Sun
Directed by Scott Teems
With Hal Holbrook, Raymond McKinnon, Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Preston, Walton Goggins and Barry Corbin