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That Evening Sun (Blu-ray Review)

20 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.3 million
$27.97 DVD, $29.97 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for brief strong language, some violence, sexual content and thematic elements.
Stars Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Mia Wasikowska, Walton Goggins, Carrie Preston.

Let enough years go by and the inevitable has to happen. Hal Holbrook is now significantly older in real life than the Mark Twain he portrayed in the one-man show that established his career before the big screen came calling with Sidney Lumet’s 1966 take on Mary McCarthy’s The Group (There’d be scads of TV appearances for the actor as well.)

Holbrook is 84 here (and currently 85), looking in fine physical shape and with all the mental juice necessary to convince as a cantankerous out-to-pasture Tennessee widower who bolts the old folk’s home where his more citified lawyer son has plunked him. Thanks to adequate walking shoes and eventually a taxi ride, he makes it to his old farmhouse … only to find it has been leased to a “white trash” local (his term, uttered in one of several intemperate moments) who’s residing there with a loyal suffering wife and 16-year-old daughter.

Holbrook’s character (Abner Meecham, his last name still on the residence’s scruffy mailbox) thinks the farm is still his by ownership. But one offshoot of having an attorney son, for better or worse, is the ease with which it enables the latter to take on power of attorney. So for now — and even though current proprietor Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) demands his exit immediately — Abner shacks up in the small house out back, which is stocked with memorabilia from his marriage to a woman he loved but apparently mistreated (played by the late Dixie Carter, seen in brief flashbacks, and married to Holbrook in real life up to her death last April).

That this old cuss was once a younger one adds some uneasiness to the movie’s “rooting interest” component — even though Lonzo is the kind of lifelong no-account who regards alcohol as one of the essential food groups and is physically violent to both his wife and daughter while saving his worst for someone else (the act is unforgivable, though it does eventually lead to a great sick-humor sight gag).

Adapted from a short story by William Gay, That Evening Sun got a handful of commercial play dates (after considerable festival activity) in what felt like an attempt to get Holbrook a best-actor Oscar nomination. Instead, the academy’s “career” nod went to eventual winner Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart, whose performance was a lot larger than the movie it carried. As a twilight sum-up for an admired actor (though Bridges likely has miles to go), I think this is the better movie — and a better movie than Harry Brown, which recently did the kind of the same thing for Michael Caine.

For one thing, McKinnon (who was also one of the film’s producers) matches Holbrook every step of the way and keeps us from writing off Lonzo completely, despite the temptation. (Writer-director Scott Teems’ script gives him his due as well.) There’s also convincing work by “True Blood’s” Carrie Preston as Lonzo’s wife (talk about an actress unafraid to degrade her looks for a good role); Mia Wasikowska (from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) as daughter Pam; and good old Barry Corbin as Abner’s old neighbor and bran-eating soulmate. There may be a federal statute against not casting Corbin in any movie set in a Southern burg with less than 750 people but at least 751 Nehi machines.

I don’t know if the following was intentional or if it just worked out — but given that so many movies are anachronistic when it comes to musical chronology, I was happy to see that Abner’s old LP by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers carries an orange Victor label here. This makes sense: With Abner an 80-year-old, he might well have bought an LP of Rodgers in the early 1970s when he was 40, which would put the purchase smack in Victor’s relatively short-lived “orange” era between those before-and-after black Victor labels whose logo is Nipper the dog. Coincidentally (I think), Nipper is the name of two dogs here, one present and one spoken of from the past.

Teems, who says he doesn’t like director commentaries, shares one here with key filmmaking associates, explaining the sweat that went into what was only a four-week shoot. A bonus visual essay about the movie doesn’t work all that well, but there is an excellent featurette about all that went into a key scene between Lonzo and his wife — key material that explains why she’s willing to stay with a guy who has never caught a break despite all the odious things we have to assume he’s done, merely from what we’re shown.

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