Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Down South: That Evening Sun

Call them Southern Agrarians. Abner Meacham’s ramshackle farm is not much, but it is more than enough motivation for a feud with his archrival, Lonzo Choat. This might be contemporary Tennessee, but Meacham and Choat have more than a little of the Hatfields and McCoys in them throughout Scott Teems’s That Evening Sun (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The octogenarian Meacham has been betrayed by his body and his yuppie son. Consigned to a nursing home following a bad fall, the irascible Meacham finds the environment soul-deadening, so he steals away to spend his final days in the comfort of his old farm. However, he discovers his son has sold the property to the abusive white-trash Choat. Confident in his superior moral claim on the land, Meacham resorts to squatting in the “sharecropper” cabin, starting a not-so cold war with the younger man.

Though the law might be with Choat, he does not present a sympathetic figure when pressing his case, particularly after Meacham reports him for domestic abuse. While Meacham might be a difficult man to love, Choat would seem to be even harder to identify with. As both men dig in, absolutely certain of their respective positions, impending calamity seems inevitable.

Sun takes its title from Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #3,” but the lyric “hate to see the evening sun go down . . .” turns up in scores of blues and folk songs that predate Rodgers by decades. Still, the Rodgers recording is used effectively as a touchstone for Meacham, a man apparently on his “last go-round.”

Based on William Gay’s very southern short story, Sun is not exactly Southern Gothic per se, but it has gothic tendencies, including Meacham’s ghostly visions and a somewhat creepy trip to the taxidermist. It is undeniably a product of the Southern literary tradition, in which a late act of humanity is presented in an ironic light.

In a fully realized performance, Hal Holbrook (a.k.a. Mark Twain) brings both genuine intensity and plain dignity to Sun as the hard-headed geezer. Some might actually find it uncomfortably real watching as his formerly proud Meacham is bent low by age.

Unfortunately, as the lowlife Choat, co-producer Ray McKinnon is no match for the veteran actor. While he looks the part, he lacks the malevolent grit to counterbalance the powerful Holbrook, which throws the entire film out of balance. However, Barry Corbin (best known as Maurice, the former astronaut in Northern Exposure) more than holds his own in a memorably understated and nuanced supporting turn as Thurl Chessor, Meacham’s neighbor, who appears to be able to balance pride and pragmatism in his advanced age far better than his old sort-of friend.

Sun arguably stacks the deck in favor of Meacham both in its screenplay and through casting. Still, it winds its way to a surprisingly interesting place. Though far from perfect, it still has some notable elements, especially the work of Holbrook and Corbin. Ultimately it has a deliberately ragged quality and a tragic logic that echoes the country blues, in much the same way Jimmie Rodgers did. It opens Friday (11/6) at the City Cinemas on Third Avenue.