At 85 years old, Hal Holbrook is experiencing a comeback. Since being nominated for an Oscar for his supporting turn in 2007’s Into the Wild, Holbrook is busier than ever, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see him in a rare leading role in the low-key drama That Evening Sun. Holbrook expertly carries the film as curmudgeonly Abner Meacham, a senior citizen who breaks out of the retirement home to which he’s been consigned by his ungrateful son and decides to return to his Tennessee farm. The problem is that when he gets there, he discovers that his son has already leased the place to a new family.
First-time writer-director Scott Teems, adapting a short story by William Gay, plays out the resulting battle of wills over the course of nearly two leisurely hours, and only at the end do the stakes get high enough for the movie to feel a little overwrought. For the most part, this is a guy-sits-on-porch movie, and as such it’s best when Abner is just passing time with his neighbor and old buddy Thurl (an amusing Barry Corbin) or tentatively bonding with the usurpers’ 16-year-old daughter Pamela (Wasikowska). Holbrook brings a believable balance of irritability and compassion to Abner, making him more than just a stubborn, ornery old man.
Like Joey Lauren Adams’ Come Early Morning or Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, That Evening Sun is a complex portrait of the rural South as a place where deeply ingrained traditions and prejudices mingle freely with modern ideas and developments. Teems never condescends to his characters, and even the drunken abusive father (McKinnon) who wants to take Abner’s land is well-rounded and occasionally sympathetic.
Teems complements his mostly laid-back story with pastoral images of trees and streams and insects that give a sense of isolation and decay, but also renewal. As much as the actual encroachment on his property, that sense of the inevitable passage of time is what Abner is rebelling against, and Teems and Holbrook capture it with grace.