In the opening moments of Scott Teems's That Evening Sun, Albert Meecham stares out of his nursing home window, his face a hard shell of bitterness and resentment. He then gathers up his pocket watch, his suitcase, and his cane, and walks right out the door. He's about had it with that place. He's got some things to take care of.
Albert is played by Hal Holbrook, who gives the kind of performance that it feels like he's been waiting an entire lifetime to deliver. Meecham is an angry old cuss who travels back to the farm he spent a lifetime working, only to discover that his good-for-nothing son Paul (Walton Goggins) has sold it off to Alonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), the son of Albert's lifelong enemy. He is greeted by Alonzo's wife (Carrie Preston), who tells him to wait for Alonzo, "he'll be here directly." Albert replies, "I'm an old man, I may die directly."
He does not take the news of the farm's sale lightly; he moves into the sharecropper's house on the property and decides to wait the Choats out. "You're supposed to be at the home," his son tells him. "I'm supposed to be where I damn well please!" he snaps back. When Alonzo's good-heared daughter (Mia Wasikowska) lets it slip that her father hates dogs, Albert can't find a yapping canine companion fast enough. When Albert overhears the drunken lout wailing on his wife and his daughter in the yard, the old man comes out with a pistol and gives him a piece of his mind.
The battle of wills between the 80-year-old coot and the worthless son of his adversary could have easily been played for overheated Southern melodrama, or for black hillbilly comedy. Teems's picture (adapted from a short story by William Gay) doesn't go in either of those directions; it is a low-key back roads drama, tuned in to the specific manner in which these people would interact. His screenplay is the first in over a decade to remind me of Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar-winning script for Sling Blade . The dialogue, as in that film, is simple and direct, colorful without condescending or trafficking in lazy caricatures. Every member of the tight ensemble (save for Paul, who is mostly a functional character) is fully drawn and three-dimensional, and Albert isn't the only one who gets good lines; when Albert asks his buddy Thurl (the great Barry Corbin) why he lost his driver's license, he shrugs and chuckles, "Oh, I hit some folks."
But this is Holbrook's show. It's not a flashy performance--he seldom has to raise his voice, and never has to push or reach for effects--but he digs about as deep as you can go, shaking off years of thankless supporting roles and TV work and relishing the opportunity to do some real work again. Though Albert Meecham is a rougher-edged character, Holbrook's work here is reminiscent of Richard Farnsworth's terrific turn in David Lynch's The Straight Story; that film got Farnsworth an Oscar nomination, and if there were justice in the world, Holbrook's deeply felt and marvelously intuitive turn would have been similarly rewarded. He gets to the gnarled, stubborn soul of this guy, whether spitting out threats or strolling on his broken-down porch, looking over his land and singing quietly to himself. And the moments where he flashes back to his time with his late wife are heartbreaking (she's played by Holbrook's real wife, Dixie Carter, and her recent death gives those scenes extra poignancy--as if any more were needed). There isn't a moment here that feels false, and the way that he pulls off the movie's tricky, perfectly realized climax is what good acting is all about.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer is just lovely, the lush greens of the Meecham farm and surrounding woods rendered with vivid color and dense dimensionality. Details are impressive--every line and wrinkle on Holbrook's weathered face is sharply drawn--and black levels are deep and inky, particularly in the moody nighttime scenes. It's a first-rate representation of a beautifully-shot picture.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is similarly sumptuous, with the environmental sounds of the farm and countryside well-dispersed throughout the soundstage. The forlorn chirpings of the crickets at night and the cicadas by day create a rich, full, and immersive soundscape, nicely complimented by Michael Penn's quiet, mournful score. Dialogue is audible and clear, even when quietly spoken in the authentic Southern dialect.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Writer/director Scott Teems, director of photography Rodney Taylor, and editor Travis Sittard's "Anti-Commentary" is informative and interesting, while a bit obnoxious in its conception. The track is so dubbed because Teems proclaims that he "hates" director's commentaries, and while he seems a knowledgeable guy, he comes off as a bit of a blowhard. He says he dislikes commentaries and supplements because he wants the film "to stand on its own" without a "deluge of extra stuff," but there's nearly two hours of that "extra stuff" elsewhere on the disc; he says he insisted on having Taylor and Sittard join him because film is so "collaborative," but then he barely lets them get a word in edgewise. Stop protesting and just talk about the movie, dude; nobody's being forced to listen to the track.
"'That Tennessee Sun...': The Making of That Evening Sun, In Music and Image" (9:12) is a charmingly low-key making-of montage, with behind-the-scenes footage scored to music cues. The featurette "The Art and Craft of That Evening Sun" (34:01) is a closer and more explicit look at the film--in fact, it primarily examines one specific scene. The trouble with the piece is that it was originally assembled by Michael Dunaway as an audio podcast for his indie-minded.com website; here the narration and audio interviews are illustrated, rather awkwardly, with stills and clips. There's some interesting material, but it's rather taxing to "watch" a podcast for well over a half hour. The Cast Interviews (30:07 total) and Crew Interviews (46:19) offer plenty of additional insights; the original Trailer (2:24) closes out the bonus features.
Holbrook is so magnificent that the film only steps wrong when it moves away from him; he's front and center in so much of the picture that the two or three scene that he's not in feel strangely out of place (even when they're good scenes, in and of themselves). There are other little flaws here and there--Teems overplays his hand when the story takes a dark turn with music that gives too much away, the film depends too much on that old warhorse, the gradually-revealing flashback, and the final scenes are just a little too clean, even if they are emotionally satisfying. No matter; That Evening Sun is a quiet, lovely film, and the performance at its center is one for the ages.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.