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Grade B+: 'Evening Sun' captures spirit of aging rebel

Jane Summer
Hal Holbrook, who plays Abner Meecham in 'That Evening Sun,' is at his best.

It's been 53 years since Hal Holbrook first impersonated Mark Twain, 34 since he was Deep Throat in "All the President's Men." At 85, he's played everybody from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Sheen's significant other.

But in an independent gem shot in East Tennessee, he's at the top of his game as a pugnacious, self-righteous old farmer fighting to reclaim what's left of life.

Written and directed by first-timer Scott Teems, "That Evening Sun" opens with Abner Meecham (Holbrook) fleeing the nursing home where his trial lawyer son Paul (Walton Goggins of TV's "The Shield") has stashed him.

Lonely and missing the land he worked hard for so long, he heads back to his farm in the country. But Abner is no Carrie Watts taking one last look at her falling-down home place in "The Trip to Bountiful." No, Abner is out of the "old rock" — hard, uncompromising, judgmental. He means to stay.

So when he finds local layabout Lonzo Choat (Raymond McKinnon) and family occupying his house, Abner explodes. Especially after learning that his son leased it to Lonzo with a 90-day option to buy.

"If you think you can buy a farm this size with food stamps\u2026 ," Abner rails. But Lonzo wants a better life, too. He won't move out, so Abner moves in, squatting in a sharecropper's shack on the property.

"You even walk like it — white trash," Abner taunts. He might be 80 with a bum hip and weak heart, but the old widower can still wield a pistol. And when drunken Lonzo horse-whips his wife and daughter, Abner intervenes and phones the sheriff. The name-calling escalates into blood feud.

McKinnon ("The Blind Side") imbues cruel, desperate Lonzo with a human spark. Carrie Preston and Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland") impress as his decent wife and restive daughter. That's Dixie Carter (Mrs. Holbrook in life) playing Abner's mistreated wife, who haunts the stern Southerner's dreams.

But the most telling chat comes with beloved Texas character actor Barry Corbin as Abner's friend and next-door neighbor Thurl Chessor, who can't drive anymore. Seems he bumped an old lady in the butt with his Cherokee and lost his license.

Teems based his award-winning script, steeped in Volunteer State vernacular, on William Gay's short story "I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down." The title comes from country singer Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #3," performed in the film by the Drive-By Truckers and Holbrook.

Cinematographer Rodney Taylor's widescreen lensing makes the quiet country outside Knoxville a soft-hued counterpoint to the growing confrontation. The plaintive music is by Michael Penn.

In the first of a series of festival plaudits, "That Evening Sun" won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature and a Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Cast at SXSW last year. Director Scott Teems will hold a Q&A after the 7:20 p.m. show Friday at the Arbor.

Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, language, violence. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. Theater: Arbor.