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Thursday, September 23, 2010

THAT EVENING SUN -- DVD review by porfle

From the looks of it, I thought this was going to be a drippy, golden-hued "Hallmark Hall of Fame"-type movie meant to comfort and inspire.  Instead, THAT EVENING SUN (2009) is one of those simmering rural Southern dramas where slow-burning tensions inevitably boil over, and the resulting tragedies are as subtle as a dying flame.

We find Hal Holbrook's Abner Meecham walking out of the nursing home--or, as he calls it, a "dead people factory"--that his son Paul has placed him in, and making his way back to the farm where he once lived with his late wife, Ellen.  He finds that Paul has leased the place to a ne'er-do-well named Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) and his family, who have no intention of leaving.  Abner moves uninvited into the sharecropper's shack next to the house, and a bitter battle of wills ensues.

With an authentic backwoods atmosphere that's downscale and realistic as opposed to a Tennessee Williams-style "Southern Gothic", THAT EVENING SUN invites us to gear down and settle into its molasses-paced story of ordinary people with tragically conflicting interests.  As such, I found it somewhat similar to Billy Bob Thornton's SLING BLADE, but with more subtle shades of good and evil.

Lonzo, for example, is described by Abner as "white trash" living off his disability checks, and has never amounted to anything his entire life.  As Abner reminds him, Lonzo can't get a crop in because his equipment is broken down, and neither can he plant roots for his family because he isn't equipped for that kind of growth, either.  Yet by leasing the farm--in which he's clearly in over his head--he's at least attempting to take on some responsibility and improve their lives.  While Lonzo is a sullen, resentful drunk with a violent temper, and is capable of committing vile deeds, by the end of the film we're still trying to figure him out. 

Ray McKinnon, best known by me as Long Bill Coleman in DEAD MAN'S WALK and COMANCHE MOON and as the gate guard who first spreads the plague in THE STAND, turns in one of his best performances in the role.  As his wife Ludie, Carrie Preston has the tentative demeanor and vulnerability of Amanda Plummer, and is especially effective when the insecure Ludie is desperately trying to mold the uncertainties that surround her into a semblance of normalcy.  Mia Wasikowska is appealing as their 16-year-old daughter Pamela, a typical teen who makes a connection with Abner because his strength of character intrigues her.

Holbrook's wife Dixie Carter plays the late Ellen Meecham in a number of wistful flashbacks.  Barry Corbin (LONESOME DOVE, WARGAMES) appears as Abner's old friend Thurl, who offers moral support.  Walton Goggins, one of the film's producers (McKinnon is another), plays Abner's son Paul.  His scenes with Holbrook are another source of conflict as the son tries to convince the father that the time has come to let go of his old life.

Hal Holbrook, of course, is a joy to watch as the stubborn, crotchety old man who hates seeing "that evening sun" going down on his life before he's done living it.  We side with Abner as he fights to regain his farm and his dignity, and fear for him when the conflict begins to escalate.  Even so, Holbrook never plays the part as a saintly martyr and we see his faults as well as his virtues.  One of the strengths of the story is that our sympathies are never allowed to rest too firmly on one side or the other. 

The DVD from Image Entertainment is 2.35:1 with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and English and Spanish subtitles.  Extras include a director's commentary, a series of in-depth "making of" featurettes, cast and crew interviews, and a trailer. 

THAT EVENING SUN is the sort of slow, involving drama that rewards a viewer's patience with its emotional resonance.  It also reminds us that some conflicts burn hot enough to leave smoldering ashes on both sides.

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