That Evening Sun (2009; dir. Scott Teems) foregrounds place. The setting is Tennessee. Intensely visual cinematography, a strong soundtrack of insect sounds and other ambient noises, mountains in the background, views of fields, houses, tenant shacks, pickup trucks, a nearly abandoned small town. These do not image a stereotypical American South but instead a particular one.
The South is not the subject or even the primary issue. Rather it is a context. The dramatic focus is an 80-year old farmer, Abner Meecham, who has been living in a retirement home for three years. It is a dreary, depressing place. We learn that after the death of Abner’s wife, his son Paul convinced him to move there. But Abner decides he cannot tolerate the home any longer and packs up to walk back to his farm. When he arrives, by walking and by taxi, he discovers someone else living there. He learns that as soon as he moved to the retirement home his son rented the house and farm to Lonzo Choat, a ne’er do well local citizen struggling to make his way. Although he lives only off the benefits from disability checks, he wants to make the farm work. The conflicts here revolve around class, age, and family. Lonzo is around 40 and holds Abner in contempt. Some years before Abner refused to rent a tenant shack to him. Abner hates Alonzo—he calls him white trash, accuses him of laziness, thievery, and worse. While Abner wants to return to his farm and live out the remainder of his life, Lonzo wants to make a home there. Both desires, the film gradually brings us to know, are not likely to be fulfilled. This is not a narrative in which two stubborn, resolute characters struggle and argue and finally come to an understanding. As the conflict between Abner and Lonzo deepens, each becomes more firmly set against the other. They are stubborn, yes. But Alonzo’s stubbornness may be fueled by alcohol and upbringing, while Abner’s may come from advancing age if not early senility. There are moments when it seems the gap between these men might be bridged, especially through Alonzo’s wife and daughter, both of whom are sympathetic to Abner, but they lead nowhere.
That Evening Sun is based on a story by Tennessee writer William Gay. The director and screenwriter Scott Teems is a native of Lilburn, Georgia. Ray McKinnon, who plays Lonzo, has appeared in a number of Southern films, including The Accountant, The Blind Side, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? His production company, “Ginny Mule Pictures,” which he co-owns with Walton Goggins, who plays Abner’s son Paul in this film and who also appeared in The Accountant, has produced several films about the South. Although Ginny Mule Pictures did not produce That Evening Sun, McKinnon was a producer. To some extent, then, this film is the creation of Southern writers, director, and actors. This may account to an extent for its realistic treatment of the Southern setting. The film shows us an old farm nestled in the mountains. It is instantly recognizable. We are not surprised that it is Southern. It is particular unto itself—it doesn’t seem constructed from preconceptions of what a Southern farm ought to be. It simply is what it is. The makers of That Evening Sun give us the South of their own experience. Of course, their Southnernness simply means that they bring their own preconceptions to the film. But compared with the treatment of the Southern farm in such films as The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this one seems quietly real.
Although Abner Meecham’s farm is near the small town of Ackerman’s Field, only a few scenes occur in the town. There is no real farm vs. city conflict here, though the setting makes clear that the town is a part of the rural South that has been left behind by modernization, urbanization, and homogenization. It is analogous to the small town in Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart, left behind when the highway passed it by, or Eula Springs in James Wilcox’s novel Modern Baptists. In a sense, all the characters live on the margins. Abner is old and isolated. He lost his wife (whom he remembers in occasional flashbacks and dreams) three years before. His only friend, Thurl Chessor, a nearby farmer played by Barry Corbin, has difficulty walking and cannot drive. Abner lives on social security and support from his son Paul. A long history of unemployment, domestic violence, alcohol, and an injury to his leg have given Lonzo the reputation of a terminally unemployed no-count. He is struggling, as his wife explains to Abner, to make something of himself, and he was (apparently) successfully managing to avoid abusing alcohol and his family, until Abner returns to the farm. The two women in the family are trapped by Lonzo’s domineering personality, his violence, and their love for him (though ultimately the daughter leaves).
Too many conflicts and struggles afflict That Evening Sun. The main one is Abner’ s struggle to come to grips with his age, the loss of his farm and his wife, and his difficult relationship with his son Paul. His son is a lawyer and while it’s apparent that he’s not a wealthy man he at least has money. He complains to his father at one point about how much it costs him to keep him in a retirement home, and it’s clear that he never had much of a relationship with the old man. Abner complains that all Paul has ever done is lie to him. In fact, Abner’s conversations with Lonzo and Paul are full of insults, rancor, and bitterness. He feels abandoned and betrayed by everyone, and the worst insult comes when he returns to his farm to find a man whom he has long disliked renting his farm (with an option to buy) from his own son.
Abner blames everyone for his misfortunes. Gradually events lead him to realize that to some extent he bears responsibility for some of the things that have happened, including his difficult relationship with Paul. He comes to see how cruel and difficult he has been, even to his wife. We recognize, even if Abner does not, that Abner is much like Lonzo after all.
Abner shows some sympathy for Lonzo’s wife Ludie (Carrie Preston) and daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowski). Ludie tries to be friendly with Abner, perhaps hoping to soften the developing tensions with her husband. She seems to understand Abner both as an old man with his own problems and also as a threat to the life she and her husband hope to build on the farm. It is Pamela, a sixteen-year-old girl, whom Abner at brief moments talks to and even behaves kindly towards. She seeks him out on several occasions simply for conversation, as if she is looking for a warmth and connection she cannot get from her embittered father. When Lonzo, drunk and angry over her being out late at night with a boy, beats her and his wife with a hose, Abner threatens him with a gun and turns him into the local sheriff. Later he warns and then demands that Pamela leave the farm, for her own safety (Ludie has encouraged her to leave as well). We see a dimension of Abner in these scenes that suggests he is not all gruffness and bitterness. In these two woman he may see something of his former life, of his departed wife. At the same time, Lonzo’s abuse provides him with a convenient excuse to escalate their dispute.
There is no peaceful resolution here. After Abner is injured in a fire, he wakes up in a hospital room to find Paul watching over him. They agree that Abner will go to live in a retirement community apartment near Paul’s home. Paul tells him he will have a backyard where he can grow tomatoes, and Abner, true to form, answers that he would rather grow corn. In the final scene we see Abner peering into windows of the abandoned house where he once lived. Lonzo and his wife have moved out, but, significantly, Abner does not enter the house. He walks around the front of the house, peers through the windows at vacant rooms and unused furniture, and then walks out of view.
Hal Holbrook is excellent as Abner Meecham. His is a one-note performance, of sorts, but then Abner is a one-note sort of man. McKinnon is effective as Alonzo, but then again Lonzo too is a flat character whose basic stubbornness only deepens as the film moves along. Preston, Wasikowski, and Corbin are a fine supporting cast.
Abner Meecham and Lonzo Choates are vaguely Faulknerian names. The struggle here between a displaced landowner and the lower-class white man who has supplanted him suggests Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy. The plot of the film as a whole, about a man displaced and struggling with his age and ownership of land, reminds us of The Field (1990), with Richard Harris in the lead role, an even darker and grimmer film than this one. The ultimate ancestor of both is King Lear, about an old man raging against age, betrayal, and abandonment.
That Evening Sun has comic moments but is not a comic film. Abner’s plight is sad and hopeless, as is Alonzo’s. No one seems headed towards a happy outcome. Abner and his friend Thurl will die soon. Lonzo will continue to falter in an ongoing downward spiral. Maybe his wife will put up with him a while longer. And who knows what will happen to their daughter?