Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Michel Franco
Stars: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samuel Bottomley, Iazua Larios, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Henry Youngman.
This slow-moving existential drama set in Mexico stars Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Roth plays Neil Bennett, who is spending a relaxing holiday in an exclusive resort in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Gainsbourg) and her two teenaged children Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan). Neil is the scion of a family that built its fortune on abattoirs. But Neil seems detached from both his family and his surroundings. He is reticent and seemingly oblivious to his surroundings and doesn’t seem interested in interacting with other people.
Then Alice receives a disturbing phone call informing her that her mother has been rushed to the hospital back home in England. Alice quickly arranges for the family to pack up and head to the airport for a flight home. On the way to the airport Alice is informed that her mother has died, and the return trip takes on a rather dour atmosphere. However, at the airport Neil announces that he has lost his passport. He puts Alice and the two kids on a plane, promising to follow as soon as he can. But then he immediately makes his way to a cheap hotel near the waterfront and checks in.
He indulges in the local lifestyle, relaxing on the beach, drinking beers, and dodging increasingly frantic phone calls from Alice to inquire about his whereabouts. Even when a man is murdered a few feet from him on the beach Neil remains nonplussed. He hooks up with Bereneice (Iazua Larios, from Apocalypto, etc), a local girl he meets at a café, and spends time with her. Even when he lands in prison after being accused of complicity in a crime, Neil remains stoic and emotionless and bides his time remaining away from the other inmates.
Despite the warm and atmospheric cinematography from Yves Cape (Holy Motors, etc), this is far from a picture postcard view of sun-drenched Mexico, as we get glimpses of the poverty, casual violence, corruption and crime that seems endemic and a part of life there. Production designer Claudio Ramirez Castelli, who also worked on the director’s film New Order) creates a vivid contrast between the wealthy surrounds of the resort and the poverty of the lower classes with their ramshackle houses and dirty streets. Director Franco is often concerned with injustices, class differences and inequality and social issues, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Nor does he provide easy answers, which will frustrate many. But his criticisms of social inequity and greed here is nowhere near as confronting as in his controversial previous film New Order. However, Sundown is also an exploration of simmering family tensions.
Initially it is hard to warm to Neil and his seemingly indifferent and brooding personality, or indeed get a handle on what is driving his lack of engagement. Is he suffering a mid-life crisis? It is easy to make assumptions about Neil, but in the end most of them are shown to be wrong. And as Mexican writer/director Michel Franco (who worked with Roth on 2017’s Chronic) slowly strips away the layers surrounding his seeming indifference and we learn the truth behind his actions. This is a subtle and largely silent internal performance from Roth and his world-weary expression suits the enigmatic character. Roth is on screen the whole duration of the film’s 83 minutes, and his laidback minimalist performance does hold our attention.
Gainsbourg brings plenty of emotion to her smaller role and conveys Alice’s frustration, and Henry Youngman registers strongly as Richard, the family’s lawyer who acts as a mediator between Neil and the rest of the family.
Sundown strikes a discordant note. This is a largely bleak and down beat and dour experience that will not appeal to everybody. Those attuned to Franco’s wavelength though will certainly find more to appreciate here.