That Evening Sun

Subtext is the real star of film

On its face, telling the story of an aging farmer wasn’t exactly what actors and producers Walton Goggins and Ray McKinnon set out to do. The Academy Award-winning team already had a couple of independent films under their belts and knew the grueling process of such film making — the financial hardship, the struggle for distribution, the intense amount of personal sacrifice.

But McKinnon finally agreed to at least read the script of “That Evening Sun,” a movie adapted for the screen by Lilburn-native Scott Teems, based on Southern author William Gay’s short story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.”

“When I read the script, the first 10 pages is all it really took. It was real to me and the people were real to me,” McKinnon said in a recent phone interview. “Nothing happened, sort of, but I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what doesn’t happen next.”

“That Evening Sun” tells the story of Abner Meecham, an 80-something retired farmer who escapes his nursing home and heads back to his homestead. But when he gets to his Tennessee farm, he learns his son has leased the property and all of his belongings to ne’er-do-wellers, the Choat family, toward whom Meecham has decades of resentment. Meecham refuses to leave and camps out at the farm, intent on driving away the brood. But Lonzo Choat, intent on bettering his family’s life at any cost, stakes his claim.

“That Evening Sun,” directed by Teems, premiered last March at the South by Southwest film festival where it won the Audience Award for narrative feature and a special jury prize for ensemble cast. It has continued to collect awards, including the Wyatt Award from the Southeastern Film Critics Association and best feature film at the 2009 Atlanta Film Festival.

The film, which opens tonight in Atlanta at the Tara Cinemas, gives voice to a people rarely seen on the big screen but who can be found in small town America. It explores the tensions between the men and how pride drives conflict. Meanwhile, it offers a study in how families deal with the difficulties of aging through the story of Abner Meecham and his son, Paul, played by veteran actors Hal Holbrook and Goggins, respectively.

The cast say they took care not to fall prey to stereotypes and shallowness with their roles. Lonzo Choat could be easily dismissed as white trash. Paul Meecham could be misunderstood as a son all too eager to dump his difficult dad in a nursing home. And the audience may want to champion Abner Meecham’s cause, overlooking his willingness to cut corners to reclaim his home or to just make his point.

But in “That Evening Sun,” there are no heroes, no clear-cut answers of right and wrong. And its beauty lies in the subtext portrayed in the slow, yet simmering scenes.

“A lot of what you get from it isn’t spoken out loud,” Holbrook said. “I’m moved by what isn’t said.”

Holbrook, one of few non-Southerners in the cast, was drawn to Meecham for a very personal reason: The character closely resembled his late father-in-law. Holbrook is married to actress and Southern maven Dixie Carter, who appears in the film as Meecham’s late wife.

“The way Mr. Carter lived, and the way he was, gave me a lot of insight into the kind of attitude and the kind of positioning Abner had,” said Holbrook, reached by phone at his California home. “Mr. Carter would not be pushed around.”

Neither will McKinnon’s Lonzo Choat, whose future seems to rest on the farm’s success.

“I knew guys like Lonzo. I grew up with guys like him, that white, working class,” said McKinnon, who grew up in Adel, near Valdosta. “Lonzo has been a lazy guy, and a sorry guy, and he doesn’t know how to work. Because he doesn’t know how to [farm], he’s in over his head.”

In the film, we see Choat struggle to prove himself in the face of an obstinate Meecham and his own weary family. Macon-native Carrie Preston portrays Choat’s wife, Ludie, while newcomer Mia Wasikowska delivers a tender, believable performance as their teen daughter. The movie also stars Barry Corbin, of “No Country for Old Men,” as Meecham’s neighbor.

Goggins, who grew up in Lithia Springs and is most known for his role on “The Shield,” said in a recent interview he was drawn to the story of Paul and Abner Meecham because their story echoes so many conversations happening across America as baby boomers deal with aging parents.

“This generation of World War II people greatly affected me and I wanted to tell their story,” Goggins said. And with a beloved grandfather born in 1915, and his own aging parents, “I understood those miscommunications between the generations.”

There’s no easy takeaway message from the film, but it makes you think about life, pride and the meaning of home. And that’s just what the cast and crew had in mind.