For Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), 80-year-old farmer and nursing home escapee, a small piece of Tennessee farmland represents the fruits of a lifetime of hard work and a chance to live out his remaining years in freedom. For Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), poor white and alcoholic, it means a chance to start over and make a new life for his family—as well as a chance to validate his fragile sense of manhood. And in dramatizing the blood feud that erupts between the two men over ownership of a small piece of this land, That Evening Sun gets at something essential about man’s sense of his own dignity and the importance to the American notion of self that comes with the possession of a property of one’s own.
Meecham once enjoyed that sense of ownership, but, dispossessed by his own son, a hot-shot lawyer who simply doesn’t have time to worry about his father, he’s been shipped off to a retirement community, from which he escapes at the film’s beginning. Returning to the farm, he finds Choat, along with his wife and 16-year-old daughter, in possession of his house and planning on purchasing the land from his son, who, in the guise of legal guardian, has appropriated his father’s property. Unwilling to leave the farm, the older man sets up in the dilapidated sharecropper’s cabin on the edge of the property and wages a cold war of wills against Choat which soon turns hot, with gunfire, dog hangings, and conflagrations the violent result.
But for all the physical action taken by the two men, which also includes a brutal garden-hose whipping delivered by Choat against his daughter and her date, this is mostly a film about the way viewpoints are expressed in angry words and, especially, in silent, steely glances, and thus are not even given the chance to be understood. Late in the picture, when Meecham’s son tries to justify his decision to send his father back to the retirement home, the older men tells him, “You got the wrong slant on things. Always seeing things from the wrong angle.” In Scott Teems’s film, few characters see things from anyone else’s angle except their own, but it’s to the director’s credit that he grants all of these angles fair expression and that, when seen from the perspective of each character, they all seem equally valid.
Of course, some points of view are more valid—or at least of greater concern to Teems—than others, and while the Choat family, particularly the wife, argue their reasons compellingly, the film’s perspective keeps closest to Meecham. And in that crusty old figure—as embodied by a game Holbrook, equal parts stubborn crank and dignified survivor—lies the film’s commitment to its human center. It’s there in a long monologue which Meecham addresses to his dog, ruefully recalling the details of how a broken hip led his son to send him to the retirement home with the older man’s initial consent, while Teems’s camera inches imperceptibly closer to his sagging face. It’s equally there in a late scene where Meecham enters his old house and pokes around, the camera tracking slow circles around the bedroom, mimicking the man’s taking in of a landscape at once comfortably familiar and eerily foreign. In such scenes, Teems restores to his central character the humanity continually being poached by those around him. But it speaks to the filmmaker’s achievement—marred somewhat by a series of late flashbacks which unnecessarily sentimentalize what was otherwise an agreeably tough-minded film—that he understands those character’s reasons as surely as he does Meecham’s.