Friday, April 30, 2010
That Evening Sun (2009)
One of the most celebrated stylistic devices in literature is the trick of the unreliable narrator, where the reader comes to learn that the character relating the story cannot be trusted. This kind of plot point has been translated to the movies in countless ways, but it’s most often employed in films like Fight Club, where we only learn in the last few minutes how batshit crazy our main character really is. Plot-wise, 2009’s That Evening Sun might be about as far from a movie like Fight Club as you’re likely to get, and it doesn’t even use narration. But thanks to some sly, wonderfully moving storytelling and a towering performance from Hal Holbrook, it’s able to achieve a similar effect—not through wild twists and fractured narrative, but through the revelations provided by living, believable, and tragically flawed characters whose complexities only build and unfold as the story progresses.
The film follows a man with the delightfully Southern name of Abner Meecham (Holbrook), a strong-willed, ill-tempered, 80-plus year-old Tennessee farmer who might as well be the Dixieland version of Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino. As the film opens, Abner’s just busted out of the nursing home he was committed to and walked the 20-plus miles back to his sleepy tract of land. He arrives to find his house inhabited by Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), a local ne’er-do-well who rented the place from Abner’s son with the intention of becoming a farmer and turning life around for his wife and daughter. We’re never told just how well Choat and Abner know each other, but it’s hinted that their families have a past. Whatever the history, the two immediately clash: Abner is furious that the homestead he tended with his late wife has been taken over by a “white trash…loafer,” while Choat carries a grudge about the way he’s always been treated by Abner, whom he sees as a stubborn, bitter old man. After his son (Walton Goggins) is unable to convince him to leave the property, Abner sets up camp in some old slave quarters located in a ramshackle cabin mere feet from the main house. He and Choat start doing their best to make each other's lives miserable, setting the stage for a Southern Gothic feud that’s destined to turn violent.
The biggest pleasure of That Evening Sun is the way the narrative and the characters unfold as leisurely as the humid Tennessee afternoons depicted in the film. Each player is like an onion where the layers are slowly peeled away to reveal new traits and elements, which keeps our view of them in perpetual flux. Director Scott Teems does a magnificent job of building the drama by continually setting up character roles and then immediately subverting and complicating them. We’re led to believe that Abner represents the proud, gentlemanly Old South and Lonzo the slovenly, troubled redneck, but as the story progresses and the themes of manhood, familial responsibility and redemption start to build, we come to realize that each man is not so easily pinned down. What’s more, they’re probably more alike than either would like to admit.
This is most apparent in a key scene late in the film, where a line from Abner’s son suddenly throws into doubt nearly everything we know and believe about him and his idealized relationship with his wife (played in some artfully handled flashbacks by Holbrook’s actual spouse, the late Dixie Carter). Rarely is there a film where the viewer’s total understanding of characters and themes is so radically changed simply by the utterance of a single, seemingly innocuous line, but that is exactly what happens here. (One person in the nearly empty theater in which I saw it actually gasped aloud when they heard it.) It’s a subtle moment, and Teems, working from a short story by the celebrated writer William Gay, wisely underplays it to the point that I’m sure that no small amount of viewers will miss it entirely.
Of course, none of this would work so well if it weren’t for a universally excellent cast led by Holbrook, a criminally underrated actor who turns in what might be one of the very top performances in a long and storied career. He doesn’t deliver a false line in the entire film, and every word he speaks feels like it has the weight of a full lifetime of love, loss, and hardship behind it. Still, at the same time that Abner is a flawed and fully realized character, we are consistently—and wisely, I might add—kept at an arm’s length from him. We’re not told why he was put in the home or how his wife died for a good portion of the film, and when these revelations come, they act as the major catalyst for the way our understanding of the conflict is refigured and reinterpreted.
Holbrook gives the standout performance, but he’s nearly matched by McKinnon, a deeply talented actor whose chameleon-like qualities have established him as a phenomenal artist at the same time they’ve kept him effectively hidden from the mainstream. He’s as hyperbolically good as ever here, turning in a performance that wouldn’t have been out of place in his 2004 directorial debut Chrystal, another languidly-paced Southern drama that’s similar in tone and style to That Evening Sun. Carrie Preston is understated and touching as his long-suffering wife, while Mia Wasikowska (of Alice in Wonderland fame) has an equally interesting turn as his daughter, a shyly sweet girl whose bemusement with the ornery Abner makes for a few quite funny scenes. Rounding out the cast is the great Barry Corbin as Thurl Chessor (this film deserves an award for colorful character names), Abner’s charmingly detached neighbor. You might remember Corbin as Ellis, the cat-keeping philosopher-hermit that Tommy Lee Jones visits at the end of No Country for Old Men. He was great in that film, and he brings a similar kind of homespun wisdom and pitch-perfect diction to his role here.
Teems’ direction is unobtrusive and understated throughout—he realizes how good his cast is—but he deserves credit for the way he manages to build mood and atmosphere through his gorgeous widescreen landscape shots and slow camera moves. His fleeting cutaways during Abner’s reveries about the past are also exceptional and wonderfully staged. This preoccupation with the lyrical does make for the film’s one noticeable flaw—an ending that is perhaps a bit too unfinished for its own good—but this kind of philosophical open-endedness should always be appreciated, especially in a film that is otherwise as narratively straightforward as this. That Evening Sun is haunting, thematically complex, character-driven, and literary in the best since of the word—all of which make for an experience that is truly moving. Most important of all, though, it achieves it all without ever sacrificing one ounce of authenticity. And that, simple as it may sound, is not something you see too often.