I hate to see this evening sun go down.
Lord, I hate to see this evening sun go down.
'cause it makes me think I'm on my last go 'round.
Few things are more enjoyable than watching a legendary actor, nearing the end of a long and illustrious career, who finds the passion and the courage to deliver an absolutely spell-binding performance—one that history may well remember as his finest. Eighty-six-year-old Hal Holbrook, who has appeared in over forty feature films and countless stage productions, is just such an actor. And That Evening Sun's Abner Meecham is his magnum opus.
Director Scott Teems—an alumnus of Barbara Nicolosi's Act One program—adapted the film from William Gay's short story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," and the result is as harsh and insightful a Southern Gothic fable as the big screen has seen in many a year. Set in the rural countryside of Tennessee, it follows Ol' Abner (Holbrook) as he slips away from the retirement home so carefully selected by his son (Walter Goggins), and heads back to the sleepy little town of Ackerman's Field to reclaim his farm. Upon arriving there, however, he receives a rather unpleasant surprise: during the old man's reluctant stay at the old folks' home, Abner's son has decided to lease the farm to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), a local redneck who has tangled with Abner in the past, and whose reputation as a lazy, boorish loud-mouth has been well and truly earned.
Incensed at finding interlopers on the homestead he so painstakingly carved out with his late wife Ellen, Abner vows to eliminate his rivals. When an innocent conversation with Choat's teen-aged daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska) reveals the man to be both an inveterate dog hater and a mean drunk, Abner sees the perfect way to make his presence felt. Purchasing a mutt known as "the noisiest dog in Ackerman's Field" from a local neighbor, Abner sets about making the Choats' lives as miserable as possible, trusting that his irksome behavior will soon drive them from his property. "I'll leave when I'm good and ready," he tells Pamela stubbornly. "You tell Lonzo the same."
Choat, who sees Abner's farm as his best and last chance of escape from the downward spiral of poverty and suffering that has dogged his family's steps from their earliest days, is just as stubborn. Armed with a lease-to-own agreement from Abner's son, he demands that the old man vacate the homesteader's cabin where he has taken up residence; Abner responds by alerting the local sheriff's deputies that Choat beats his womenfolk during the worst of his beer-fueled rages. Despite the repeated efforts of Abner's son, Lonzo's wife, and the young Pamela, both men dig in their heels, refusing to concede an inch to the other. As the situation escalates, Abner and Lonzo show themselves willing to go to any lengths to achieve their ends—a predicament that propels the two combatants inexorably towards a violent denouement that will leave both broken and adrift in its aftermath.
Teems is fascinated by the moral implications of his protagonists' actions, and by the often murky motivations that drive them. And in no character is that murkiness more evident than in Abner himself. Teems describes him as an "untrustworthy narrator"; initially, the viewer is drawn to his gruff yet seemingly fair-minded demeanor. But as the film digs deeper into his past, his selfishness and stubborn ways—traits that have caused his loved ones immeasurable suffering in the past, yet ones that he seems unwilling to confront—begin to grate. His unwarranted certitude in the face of Choat's frustrations make his actions increasingly difficult to defend, and one begins to wonder if there is anyone worth rooting for in this sad affair—a battle between an Unstoppable Force and an Immovable Object, where no one can truly "win."
Yet despite the darkness of its "evening," the film never loses sight of its "sun." Grudging admiration comes gradually both for Choat (whose stubborn resolve to better himself for the sake of his family is undeniably praiseworthy) and Abner (whose eventual acceptance of his old age and deteriorating health is matched only by the painful, redeeming recognition of his own failings). The fingerprints of Flannery O'Connor (Teems' favorite writer and one of his greatest inspirations) are everywhere. And while her beloved "moments of grace" may elude Choat and his family, they are clearly present in Abner's acknowledgement of the damage caused by his stubborn selfishness.
When he first arrives in Ackerman's Field, Abner is forced to contend not only with his deteriorating health, but with what he sees as the death and destruction of everything he holds dear. Growing old is a difficult cross for any of us to bear. But to lose his beloved farm—brimming with the memories of his beloved Ellen—to the very people he most despises? To see his way of life overturned by those who would do away with it altogether? That's a difficult "last go 'round" to swallow. Abner's hatred for the setting of the metaphorical Evening Sun is deep, virulent, and understandable.
His change of heart is understandable, as well. His acceptance of old age's inevitable decline reveals him to be less selfish and less stubborn than his actions with Choat would suggest, and Choat has played no small part in that realization. Rather than breaking under the weight of his self-inflicted suffering (and under the guilt he feels over his indefensible actions towards his opponents) Abner learns from them. Late though it may be, he finally recognizes that peace comes not from getting what one wants, but from wanting what one gets. His age—the setting of his evening sun—is not within his control; learning to cope with it, however, is.