What makes That Evening Sun such an effective movie is its ruthless refusal to sentimentalize its protagonist. Hal Holbrook’s Abner Meechum isn’t some cute moviefied “unpleasant crusty old man” he’s an actual unpleasant crusty old man. In a crucial scene at the end of the movie his son stops trying to appease him looks him dead in the eye and snaps “You were mean. You were mean to me and you were mean to her.” In another film this could be just another example of the son, a stereotypical “big city lawyer” (played by Walton Goggins making it a struggle to keep from yelling SHANE every time he’s on screen) being callous, in this case though it rings true, both to us and the characters.
As the films start Meechum has broken out of the old folk’s home he was living in and made his way back to the family homestead. There he finds Lonzo Choat, a man Meechum considers white trash and despises. There is some unspecified feud in the characters past and it resumes with a vengeance, when it comes out that Choat has leased the place with an option to buy from Meechum’s son. Meechum hunkers down in the sharecroppers cabin at the edge of the property and a good ole Southern semi gothic commences.
Although the film eventually tips its hand, and a bit too far for my taste, the early scenes of That Evening Sun are fascinating because we are genuinely unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for. Choat is after all legally inhabiting the land, it’s easy to imagine a film from his perspective as he is relentlessly harassed by a mean old bastard, rather then a mint julip fueled Grand Torino. Then the film does arbitrarily decide it wants you to take Meechum’s side after all and apropos to nothing we’d seen from him before, turns Choat into the beer swilling, wife beating, white trash that Meechum always said he was, the film suffers for it.
The film’s other problem is it can’t quite make up it’s mind whether it wants to be a David Gordon Greene style tone poem about an old man’s final days, a southern gothic, or a straight up “crotchety old man teaches valuable life lessons” film. It splits the difference with uncomfortable results. Alternating wistful lyrical nature sequences, with ones in which he imparts stern but righteous lessons on Choat’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and ones in which Meechum menaces Choat with a stuffed dog. Still there is no denying that director Scott Teems has a way with actors and an eye for composition. For all the tonal confusion and odd moments I have a feeling The Evening Sun will stick with me long after smoother films have faded from memory. Say what you will about it but it is not Teflon.