Thursday, March 11, 2010

That Evening Sun: Simmering tension

That Evening Sun (2010) • View trailer for That Evening Sun
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for battlefield violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.11.10
Buy DVD: That Evening Sun • Buy Blu-Ray: That Evening Sun [Blu-ray]

Some films get the bulk of their dramatic heft from the interactions between central characters; others take a subtler approach, building mood and atmosphere into a sort of cinematic tone poem that evokes an emotional response with a minimum of dialogue.

That Evening Sun is just such a film.
Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) is surprised to find his home occupied by a
woman (Carrie Preston) and her barely dressed daughter, Pamela (Mia
Wasikowska), but he has an even nastier jolt in store: the male presence in this
family, who turns out to be a much-despised acquaintance.

Although fueled by star Hal Holbrook's faultless performance as an octogenarian not about to go quietly into the good night, director/scripter Scott Teems  adapting William Gay's short story, "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down"  isn't all that concerned with conventional storytelling.

Teems establishes place first: the dilapidated, financially distressed, suffocatingly hot purgatory of a tiny Tennessee community well on its way to becoming a ghost town. Not since 1981's Body Heat has the sweat-stained discomfort of oppressive humidity been so convincingly caught on camera; Teems and cinematographer Rodney Taylor have quite a talent for weaving random images  humming insects, sun-baked wood, shimmering roads  into a tapestry of weary discomfort.

The events detailed in this setting are more a random snapshot than a linear narrative with a fixed introduction and conclusion, and that's appropriate; Gay's prose has been compared to William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy, for the way it sets a mood more than anything else. Indeed, Gay dedicated this short story to McCarthy.

Teems' film also is unsettling because of the way it works against our expectations; the few characters in this story aren't black and white, but more shades of gray.

One thing becomes clear, though, fairly quickly: Nobody is apt to wind up happy when these events play out.

The film opens with a silent, familiar portrait of misery: the soul-deadening routine of an assisted-living group home where Abner Meecham (Holbrook) has been parked, clearly in error. Abner doesn't belong in these oppressively quiet surroundings, and so he packs a small suitcase and decamps.

After bribing the young man sent to fetch him back, Abner actually gets a ride back to the farm where he lived for many, many decades. His return is anything but pleasant. Fully expecting to find his house empty and waiting, as he left it several months earlier, Abner instead is confronted by a tableau that evokes James Mason's first glimpse of the sunbathing Sue Lyons, in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The only thing missing is a garden sprinkler, wicking back and forth.

The marginally dressed cutie is Pamela (Mia Wasikowska, Tim Burton's heroine in Alice in Wonderland), 16 years old and going on 25, with kind eyes and a curious nature. Her mother, the guarded Ludie (Carrie Preston, well recognized from TV's True Blood), appears next, followed by her husband and Pamela's father, Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon, perhaps remembered as the Rev. Smith in Deadwood).

It's not a comfortable meeting.

Abner's never had any use for Lonzo, whom the older man dismissed as no-account white trash years ago. And yet it turns out that Lonzo and his family have legal title to Abner's house and land, with an option to buy after a 90-day trial period that's almost over. This unpleasant turns of events, Abner discovers, comes courtesy of his own son (Walton Goggins, as Paul), who has exercised his legal right as conservator to rent his father's property out from under him.

And why not? Abner's supposed to be in a nursing home; he wasn't supposed to know about it.

Abner, refusing to leave, sets up housekeeping in the "slave shack" not far from the house and barn. With the sharp perception borne of a long life, he quickly registers the uneasy dynamic in this family: the way that Pamela gives her father a wide berth, the almost choreographed manner in which Ludie interposes herself between Lonzo and anything  or anybody  that might rile him.

Lonzo, for his part, is latent, slow-burning brute menace: a brooding repository of danger that McKinnon captures perfectly. We get the impression that Lonzo doesn't become physically violent only because it's too hot, and he's too lazy. And maybe not quite drunk enough.

An uneasy truce develops, both sides eyeing the other warily.

But Abner can't let it alone. From his point of view, the Choats are squatters, and the older man can't believe Lonzo ever could raise the money to buy the property, just as he can't be bothered to put any effort into working the land.

"You can't even mow the lawn!" Abner sniffs contemptuously.

Such verbal jeers are augmented by the arrival of a dog, which Abner obtains after learning (from Pamela) that Lonzo hates the sound of barking. Abner therefore teaches his new pet to bark whenever anybody says the word 'Hush!'

Abner thinks this is great fun. Lonzo's smoldering anger builds.

We ... worry.

Our expectations and fears move in numerous directions. Is Lonzo physically abusive with his wife or daughter? Will Abner carry his campaign of irritation too far? Will the poor dog survive the experience?

Alternatively, might Abner's stronger work ethic prove inspirational? Could this old man make a difference to this guarded and miserable family?

Teems has an accurate sense of the fermenting irritation that festers between people  neighbors  who don't get along: the little incidents and verbal exchanges that get magnified wholly out of proportion, until the situation turns ugly. And yet there's inevitably a moment when one individual shows his human, vulnerable underbelly: when, at that instant, bridges could be built, and fences mended, if the other party responded compassionately.

As when, in this case, Lonzo unexpectedly fuels up the lawn mower and starts trimming the grass.

Aha! we think.

Holbrook's performance is a masterpiece of subtlety: a densely layered portrait of an old man who has learned many things during his long life, but refused to learn a few other things along the way. Everything has been taken from Abner; his wife died unexpectedly, years earlier, and his relationship with his son is strained, at best. (Small wonder: Paul has a stick up his fundament just like his old man.)

Abner only wants what he perceives is his: the chance to live his few remaining years in his own home. During a lunchtime chat with Paul, Holbrook puts impressive passion into what seems a most reasonable desire; it's by far Holbrook's best, most persuasive scene.

At the same time, Abner has his lesser qualities.

"You're mean when you're drunk," he tells Lonzo.

"You're mean all the time," the other man replies, and he's not mistaken.

Stuff happens. One member of this little cast successfully escapes, hopefully to a better life.

The others discover, as we all do eventually, that fairness and desire usually aren't enough. Heat endures, land endures. Misery and disappointment endure. This film's final tableau  an empty house, furniture neatly stacked and moved aside, awaiting an estate agent shepherding potential new tenants  is heartbreakingly bleak.

That Evening Sun isn't an uplifting experience. It's slow: much too slow for some tastes. Most of the action occurs between moments: suggested rather than shown, anticipated rather than brought to fruition.

But it's also a memorable portrait of a certain kind of reality: a grim reminder that we must take care not to approach our final years alone and embittered. It's never too late to learn, to start over, to adopt a more optimistic attitude.

The question  as with the moment when our despised neighbor unexpectedly reveals his softer side  is whether we'll rise to the occasion.

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