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MOVIE REVIEW: Holbrook shines in 'That Evening Sun'

Special Photo. Hal Holbrook plays Abner in "That Evening Sun."

Special Photo. Hal Holbrook plays Abner in "That Evening Sun."

That Evening Sun (PG-13)

3 stars out of 4

Although officially beginning in 1958 with "Cat on a Hoot Tin Roof" and continuing a decade later with "In the Heat of the Night," the Southern Gothic genre didn't hit full stride until "Sling Blade" in 1996. Even with massive critical praise and a heavy push by many of Hollywood's biggest players, "SoGo" as some call it, never has and never likely will catch on with the masses.

Despite being impeccably acted and well-written, the "SoGo" canon is top heavy with depressing dramas. One notable exception was the recent comedy "Randy and the Mob" featuring Ray McKinnon, who happens to have a key role in this movie.

Based on the short story by William Gay, the film was written and directed by first-timer Scott Teems who, despite a couple of rookie jitters, handles the delicate material with a deft touch. Some will watch the movie and note the spare plot, but plot isn't what propels it. This is a completely character-driven piece accented with understated performances and parables about aging.

After the death of his wife (Dixie Carter in flashback), the 80-year old Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) is shuffled by his distracted lawyer son (Walton Goggins) off of his Tennessee farm and into a nursing home. With his wife gone and his health deteriorating, Abner figures he doesn't have much to lose, so he bolts from the home and heads back to the farm.

To Abner's shock, Paul has already rented the property to Lonzo Choat (McKinnon), the local ne'er-do-well whose family has a tumultuous history with Abner. As they are of the fairer sex and he is after all a southern gentleman, Abner is reasonably civil to Lonzo's wife and teenage daughter but begins prodding and provoking Lonzo immediately. Taking up residence in the sharecropper's cabin adjacent to the house, Abner hunkers down and prepares himself for what will be an escalating test of wills with the not-so-bright Lonzo.

In spirit, the film shares a great deal with Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino." The lead characters in both are old school seniors who aren't very likable, and if necessary aren't beyond making things real messy in order to get their way. Like the Asian gang in "Gran Torino," Lonzo projects lots of surface bluster but deep down is seriously insecure. McKinnon's portrayal of Lonzo is deeply nuanced and he often wins the audiences' sympathy.

It should come as no surprise that Holbrook is stunning from start to finish. Playing what is essentially the emotionally opposite version of his character from "Into the Wild," Holbrook steadfastly avoids the typical "grumpy old man" movie cliches. While Lonzo is the target of his bellicose but tempered rants, Abner's real enemies are time and change. He deeply misses his wife, resents being put up on a shelf and simply wants to live out his last days in familiar surroundings.

Because of the low visibility of the movie, it's unlikely Holbrook will get an Oscar nomination for his performance, which is extremely disappointing. In a career that has covered more than 50 years, he's only been nominated once (for "Into the Wild") and has never received the widespread credit a man of his talent and stature deserves.

The ending might strike some as too open-ended and extreme, but it is fitting considering the intense build-up and take-no-prisoners approach. It's not pretty but it is oddly poetic. After all, this is "SoGo," not the Hallmark Hall of Fame. (Dogwood Entertainment)