In the opening moments of Scott Teems’ That Evening Sun, Albert Meecham stares out of his nursing home window, his face a hard shell of bitterness and resentment. He then gathers up his pocket watch, his suitcase, and his cane, and walks right out the door. He’s about had it with that place. He’s got some things to take care of.Albert is played by Hal Holbrook, who gives the kind of performance that it feels like he’s been waiting an entire lifetime to deliver. Meecham is an angry old cuss who travels back to the farm he spent a lifetime working, only to discover that his good-for-nothing son Paul (Walton Goggins) has sold it off to Alonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), the son of Albert’s lifelong enemy. He is greeted by Alonzo’s wife (Carrie Preston), who tells him to wait for Alonzo, “he’ll be here directly.” Albert replies, “I’m an old man, I may die directly.”
He does not take the news of the farm’s sale lightly; he moves into the sharecropper’s house on the property and decides to wait the Choats out. “You’re supposed to be at the home,” his son tells him. “I’m supposed to be where I damn well please!” he snaps back. When Alonzo’s good-heared daughter (Mia Wasikowska) lets it slip that her father hates dogs, Albert can’t find a yapping canine companion fast enough. When Albert overhears the drunken lout wailing on his wife and his daughter in the yard, the old man comes out with a pistol and gives him a piece of his mind.
The battle of wills between the 80-year-old coot and the worthless son of his adversary could have easily been played for overheated Southern melodrama, or for black hillbilly comedy. Teems’ picture (adapted from a short story by William Gay) doesn’t go in either of those directions; it is a low-key back roads drama, tuned in to the specific manner in which these people would interact. Seems’ screenplay is the first in over a decade to remind me of Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-winning script for Sling Blade . The dialogue, as in that film, is simple and direct, colorful without condescending or trafficking in lazy caricatures. Every member of the tight ensemble (save for Paul, who is mostly a functional character) is fully drawn and three-dimensional, and Albert isn’t the only one who gets good lines; when Albert asks his buddy Thurl (the great Barry Corbin) why he lost his driver’s license, he shrugs and chuckles, “Oh, I hit some folks.”
But this is Holbrook’s show. It’s not a flashy performance—he seldom has to raise his voice, and never has to push or reach for effects—but he digs about as deep as you can go, shaking off years of thankless supporting roles and TV work and relishing the opportunity to do some real work again. Though Albert Meecham is a rougher-edged character, Holbrook’s work here is reminiscent of Richard Farnsworth’s terrific turn in David Lynch’s The Straight Story; that film got Farnsworth an Oscar nomination, and if there’s any justice in the world, Holbrook’s deeply felt and marvelously intuitive turn will be similarly rewarded. He gets to the gnarled, stubborn soul of this guy, whether spitting out threats or strolling on his broken-down porch, looking over his land and singing quietly to himself. There isn’t a moment here that feels false, and the way that he pulls off the movie’s tricky, perfectly realized climax is what good acting is all about.
It’s such a marvelous piece of work, in fact, that the film only steps wrong when it steps away from Holbrook; he’s front and center in so much of the picture that the two or three scene that he’s not in feel strangely out of place (even when they’re good scenes, in and of themselves). There are other little flaws here and there—Teems overplays his hand when the story takes a dark turn with music that gives too much away, and the film depends too much on that old warhorse, the gradually-revealing flashback. And the final scenes are just a little too clean, even if they are emotionally effective. No matter; That Evening Sun is a quiet, lovely film, and the performance at its center is one for the ages.