In 2008, 82-year-old Hal Holbrook set the record as the oldest male actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. Holbrook follows his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Into the Wild with a leading role in the Southern indie drama That Evening Sun, playing April 19 and 21 at the Atlanta Film Festival.
This guy’s career could really take off.
As retired farmer Abner Meecham, Holbrook combines a minimal performance style with a maximum amount of taciturn screen presence. In his first scene, he glowers out of a window while wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt, and his eyes gleam with an anger straight out of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” When he escapes from a shabby Tennessee eldercare facility, he discovers something that really ticks him off. His white-collar son (Walton Goggins) leased Abner’s lifelong farm to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), a hard-drinking no-account who’s moved in with his weary wife (Carrie Preston) and nubile daughter (Mia Wasikowska).
Despite his weak legal standing, Abner refuses to give up his claim on the property, and moves into the farm’s seedy workhouse. That Evening Sun follows an escalating series of stand-offs and confrontations between Abner and Lonzo, whose family's always had bad blood with the older man. Some of the confrontations provoke laughter, like the yappy dog Abner brings home to work Lonzo’s nerves. Others prove more harrowing, such as Abner’s intervention when Lonzo abuses his family with a garden hose.
Screenwriter/director Scott Teems adapts William Gay’s short story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down” and turns the story into more than a family feud. McKinnon’s seething performance captures Lonzo’s attempts to better himself, even though Abner perceives him as a white-trash leech. Meanwhile, Holbrook conveys Abner’s anger as both justifiable and misplaced: Lonzo serves as a convenient means for Abner to vent his ire at his failing health, distant son, and the death of his beloved wife (played in flashback by Holbrook’s own wife, Dixie Carter). Despite a draggy pace, That Evening Sun’s moments of sensuality in one’s sunset years deepen the characterization of Abner as more than a grumpy old man.
In 2001, McKinnon's and Goggins’ company, Ginny Mule Pictures, offered one of modern cinema’s finest, funniest depictions of Southern culture with the Oscar-winning short film The Accountant. Since then, the filmmakers have crafted cliché-free productions about the New South — Chrystal and Randy and the Mob, with That Evening Sun proving to be their most affecting and successful feature film to date. With their charismatic, well-observed portrayal of a retired farmer as a lion in winter, Teems and Holbrook turn out to be proud additions to the Ginny Mule, uh, stable.