Hal Holbrook's performance in "That Evening Sun" is a piece of work like Jeff Bridges' turn in "Crazy Heart" -- a veteran actor who knows all the moves, taking a fine little movie and making it great. The Emmy- and Tony-winning actor, 84, gives what is surely his finest performance. Writer/director Scott Teems' feature debut is a jewel of indie filmmaking on a par with "Sling Blade" or the early films of David Gordon Green.
Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, a proud, testy Tennessee farmer who walks out of the retirement facility where his son has placed him, determined to spend his last days in his backroads farmhouse. When he arrives, he finds a girl tanning by the front door. When he demands to know what she's doing there, she reasonably replies, "sunbathing." The girl's mother explains that Abner's son leased the farm to her husband, local good-for-nothing Lonzo Choat. Abner takes up residence in a sharecropper's shack and begins a simmering feud with the newcomers.
The clash of wills between the mulish Abner and redneck interloper Lonzo ("The Blind Side's" Ray McKinnon) is far from black and white. "That Evening Sun" doesn't deal in caricatures, investing each role with depth and complexity. Abner is polite if peppery to the women, but spiteful to Lonzo. He calls the interloper "white trash," and you can see from the reaction that he struck the bull's eye. Boozy, violent Lonzo knows that he's a failure; taking over Abner's farm is his one slim hope to improve his lot. Each man is caged in by his pride, by disappointment at how his life has turned out, and neither can let go of his dream without humiliation.
With this melodramatic setup you might expect a stock villain to emerge; thankfully "That Evening Sun" is wiser than that. The film is so exquisitely written and ideally cast that you understand why Lonzo's decent wife sticks with him, and why Abner's son might be justified in wanting the old man under full-time care. Every cast member gets a chance to shine, including the marvelous Barry Corbin as Abner's ailing buddy Thurl. Asked why he lost his driver's license, the old man shrugs and chuckles. "Oh, I hit some folks."
But this is Holbrook's film. He's a magically expressive, unsentimental actor, conveying bitterness and resentment with a hard silent glare. He captures our respect while never fishing for it. It's a superb late-innings performance, equal to Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino" or Richard Farnsworth in "The Straight Story." I don't expect to see many better films this year.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186