Written and directed by Michel Franco.
Starring Tim Roth, Iazua Larios, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
A wealthy man attempts to abandon his life while vacationing in Acapulco.
It won’t surprise many to learn that the latest film from Mexican auteur Michel Franco (After Lucia, New Order) is an hypnotic and unpredictable experience. Re-teaming with his Chronic star Tim Roth, Franco delivers a tricky, materially strange character drama sure to mystify as many as it beguiles.
Neil Bennett (Roth) is a wealthy Brit holidaying at a luxury Acapulco resort with his sister, Allison (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her two children. But the relaxing time away is soon interrupted by a call from back home; Neil and Allison’s mother has died. And as the four rush to the airport to fly home to London, Neil realises he’s left his passport at the resort, deciding to head back for it and follow his family on the next flight.
Except, Neil immediately asks the cab driver to take him to any nearby hotel, and it soon becomes clear that Neil’s “lost” passport was just a pretext to avoid heading home. Living out of cheap digs, Neil basically starts enacting the rituals of any single man on holiday; scarfing down rich food, drinking himself into a stupor in the sun, and even enjoying a breezy romance with a gorgeous local, Berenice (Iazua Larios).
But of course, Neil’s absence doesn’t go amiss, and he’s soon receiving urgent calls from his sister, who is trying to make sense of his refusal to return and also navigate the succession of their family’s billion-dollar slaughterhouse empire following their mother’s death.
The very first time we see Neil, he’s starring blankly at fish on a boat deck gasping for air as the life slowly drains out of them. It’s an image which opens itself up to myriad interpretations by film’s end, though will initially appear to represent Neil’s own feelings of suffocation, of middle-aged, upper-class ennui.
Neil is a deeply internalised character who gives up little to others and especially the audience, leaving both to ponder on the precise reasoning for his abandonment of homestead and family. Is it the result of a mid-life crisis? A classic “the grass is greener on the other side” parable? As those holding all the answers, Franco and Roth do a fantastic job keeping viewers in suspense throughout, unsure quite where Neil’s journey will eventually lead.
Without giving the game away, the why of Neil’s actions are ultimately quite simple, albeit complicated by external factors which some might argue didn’t really need to be explained. But Franco’s expert knack for tonal control lends his film an uneasy, unsentimental edge which makes it tough to discern quite how dire – or not – things might get.
It’s not a spoiler at all to say that Sundown isn’t 84 minutes of Tim Roth getting loaded on the beach and having sex with his beautiful lover. The quiet brutality of the earlier portions eventually gives rise to literal horrors more reminiscent of his previous feature, New Order. At this point, Franco utilises his concise runtime to his advantage, fast-ramping the drama at breakneck pace to deliver a dizzying, willfully jarring third act.
Franco gives Roth the floor to deliver one of the best performances of his career here, commanding the screen at all times without ever really raising his voice or even saying much at all. The sullen body language and affect-devoid facial expressions imply a man positively haunted by something, and it takes an actor of enormous skill to pull off a performance this subtle that still feels so substantial. As his screen sister, Charlotte Gainsbourg is also terrific in her far smaller role, particularly a show-stealing scene where she breaks down after receiving the story’s instigating phone call.
Franco’s technicals are as stately as ever, capturing Acapulco’s natural sun-kissed beauty which belies a greater ugliness percolating beneath the surface. The sublime eventually collides with the grotesque later on; a dreamlike shot of a pig in a communal shower isn’t easily forgotten, for one.
Across its tightly paced, modest canvas, Sundown leaves a lot ticking over for audiences to meditate on post-screening, and while there are sure to be divisions about certain aspects of its execution, it’s tough to argue with the sly richness of Roth’s work above all else.
A typically gripping, provocative effort from Michel Franco, buoyed by Tim Roth’s brilliantly understated performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.