The long act of saying goodbye — to a lost love, a family home, a way of living — is central to “That Evening Sun,” a pungent, if slight, slice of Southern drama.
Hal Holbrook, fantastic in his tiny role in “Into the Wild,” from 2007, here takes on the lead role of Abner Meecham, a retired Tennessee farmer who decides, after three months in the old folks’ home, to pack up and move back to the old homestead. Problem is, his slick lawyer son Paul (Walton Goggins) has already leased the house to a fellow called Lonzo Choat — the sort of strangulated name that makes him sound like kissing kin to Faulkners’ no-‘count Snopes clan.
Lonzo (played by former Atlantan Raymond McKinnon) has a sweet if often underdressed teenage daughter, Pamela (Mia Wasikowska, soon to be seen everywhere as Tim Burton’s Alice), and salt-of-the-earth wife, Ludie (Carrie Preston). But these appealing family members do nothing to temper the grudge Abner feels toward a man he sees as a white-trash usurper of his kingdom. The old fellow sets the tone by accusing Lonzo of trying to buy up his property with food stamps. Moving into the tenant shack behind the main house, Abner embarks on a cold war with Lonzo, a war that quickly heats up.
There’s not a lot of plot here. “That Evening Sun” is more about character, mood, and the drone of cicadas in the hot country air. The fate of a mutt that Abner adopts to drive Lonzo crazy with its barking edges the movie into Southern gothic territory.
Still, director Scott Teems manages to keep tonal control and keep things from skidding into cliché or grotesquerie. The cantankerous Abner and the often-drunk Lonzo are well-matched adversaries. Both are right and wrong in just about equal measure. If the movie takes sides, it’s probably more damning of Abner in his rush to stereotype the younger man as a layabout waste of food.
There’s a slight weakness to the movie in that Holbrook’s innate amiability works against the script’s depiction of Abner as a lifelong crank. We’re privy to his gauzy memories of his late wife (played by Holbrook’s real spouse, Dixie Carter), so when son Paul accuses Abner of having been cruel to both him and to his mother, the pieces almost don’t fit.
That’s a small complaint. Likability isn’t the worst accusation you could throw at an actor. And Holbrook’s centered performance brings the very best out of everyone sharing the screen. McKinnon — whose stage background sometimes showed in some over-acting in his role as a preacher in “Deadwood” — is scarily focused here, his actions understandable even when he crosses the line.
He’s nicely backed by Preston, a Macon native and Georgia Shakespeare veteran. As his long-suffering wife, she offers deep-furrowed endurance. You can see that she’s put up with a lot from Lonzo, but has chosen to stick by him, and doesn’t appreciate an old cuss like Abner stirring up trouble out of spite or plain boredom. Whenever she’s onscreen, you can’t help wishing her common sense would prevail over these two men — one young, one old, both acting like brats.
“That Evening Sun.” With Hal Holbrook, Raymond McKinnon, Carrie Preston. Directed by Scott Teems. 110 minutes. Rated PG-13. At UA Tara in Atlanta.