When you’ve worked the farm all your life, morning noon and night, it becomes a part of you. When the house on the farm was where you lived with your now-deceased wife for decades, you become a part of it. Abner Cheetham may be eighty, have a bum hip, a weak heart, and need the assistance of a walking stick, but after three months of living in the nursing home arranged by his lawyer son he knows it is time to go home. When he arrives, however, he finds the Choat family living there, having rented the place from his son in a deal Abner knew nothing about. He has hated two generations of Choats, and they him.
Right from the outset, Abner makes it clear that he will countenance no discussion. He wants the Choats, and especially the father Lonzo, out immediately. They have legal papers to be there, though, which might be a problem. Lonzo, despite being a career bum with a drink problem and no steady income, is determined to turn his life around by resurrecting the farm and living off the proceeds. The fact that he hasn’t actually planted anything or indeed lacks any farm knowledge does not deter him. Pretty soon Lonzo and Abner are involved in a slanging match resulting in Abner having to camp down in the enlarged shed in the garden, complete with folding bed and years of memories casually removed from the house by the redneck Choat. Abner strikes up an awkward sort of friendship with the daughter, Pamela, who casually mentions that her father cannot stand the sound of barking dogs. Abner hot-foots it to his neighbour Thurl’s house and brings back a dog that does nothing BUT bark from sun-up to sundown. He even trains it to bark more when he says, “Hush.” It’s the sort of irascible behavior that only our elders can get away with. Abner quickly grows on us as the sort of grandfather we’d like to have around, actually. Listen to the conversations he has with Thurl; there is a history there, you can just tell it. When talking to each other they seem to think they’re twenty again, talking about old memories like they’re still fresh. Watching the two old codgers together was the highlight of That Evening Sun, to my mind.
As much as Barry Corbin is wonderful as Thurl — and he is wonderful — Hal Holbrook is remarkable as the octogenarian ex-farmer. Not afraid to look at his own mortality, Holbrook brings steeliness to Abner that only adds to his charm. We’ve seen Holbrook in his younger years play the villain with an, “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude — Magnum Force springs to mind — and he brings that sense of stubbornness and indefatigability with him here. Old he may be, but he’s clearly no pushover. As Lonzo Choat, Ray McKinnon is not so fortunate. His character is a stereotypical one; the greasy-haired wife-abusin’ white-trash so often depicted. For example, Pamela returns home late one night from a date, much to Lonzo’s displeasure. He beats both wife and daughter with a metal-tipped garden hose that had the misfortune to be within his reach. The story requires that Lonzo beat them, I understand that, but the situation was shabbily and perfunctorily handled.
At around the hour mark director Scott Teems begins to introduce the fact that neither character is as polarized as we are first led to believe. Lonzo’s wife pleads with Abner to leave him alone; he’s a good man, she says, and hasn’t beaten her up for years until he showed up. Abner, meanwhile, is reminded by his son that he wasn’t a great father, and Abner himself remembers times when he failed as a husband. That Evening Sun introduces these character changes too late, however; by the time we get to them we’ve already made up our minds that Lonzo wears the black hat and Abner is where our sympathies lie. There are plot failings, too. It’s hard to believe that the son would sell the family farm to the one person his father hates. Little niggles like that began to creep up on me as the story unfolded.
In summary, then, Hal Holbrook is wonderful and a champion to Seniors everywhere, Corbin continues his late-career Renaissance — long gone is the prickly astronaut moneybags of Northern Exposure and in his place is a gentle, quirky character actor that deserves more screen time. The visuals of farmland Tennessee are as picturesque as you would expect. The story itself has faults, one being that the central theme is slim, but it is still an enjoyable way to spend some time when your aching bones remind you of their existence at the end of a working day.