Like a fish gasping for air upon being removed from the ocean, Sundown is centered around a lifeless Tim Roth on vacation desperate to remove himself from his family. While that may seem like a harsh descriptor, it’s a wholly deliberate move from Michel Franco, the writer/director of the film. What seems like an honest mistake during a scrambled exit from paradise devolves into a film full of seemingly maddening choices, until the pieces come together in a way that doesn’t leave much room for a “happily ever after ending”, but a feeling of intentional emptiness that brings up the age old question – does anything we do even matter?
Roth plays Neil Bennett in an almost alarmingly subdued role, who time and time again makes decisions that feel so perplexing and downright painful for the audience to watch. Filmed on the beaches and streets of Acapulco, where he seems to be the only tourist around, Franco is easily able to place the audience in to a deep state of panic with little to no effort. It’s eerily unsettling in its long moments of quiet reflection surrounded by locals singing and dancing while soaking up the sun. Consistently feeling like a powder keg about to explode, Sundown steadily manipulates the viewer into a false sense of security before utterly shocking you with its twists and turns, of which there are several.
And what is perhaps most impressive about the film is it’s not revealing itself to us as if that’s all it has to give, but merely presenting the story in a fashion it deems appropriately paced. For an 82-minute film, which you can rarely go wrong with when there’s talent like this involved, it feels packed to the brim with ideas. The nature of the film may not lend itself to a slightly longer runtime, but for what’s presented, it feels more than adequate. As motivations and layers are peeled back of our main character and his surroundings/relationships, Sundown begins revealing its true self. Equal parts nihilistic and oddly touching, Roth gives a performance that rides the line somehow so brilliantly. Sundown is placed entirely on his shoulders, and he clearly has no problem with the weight of it all.
The juxtaposition between the all-powerful sun and the dark depths to which we explore Bennett’s psyche is the strongest part of the film. Life is never as simple as some movies like to make it seem, so this feels like a wonderful, albeit sad at times, change of pace. Still dealing with the upheaval of a pandemic in our lifetimes, many (myself included) often wondered what the point was of our own interests. Our hobbies became something more than a casual escape, and grappling with that notion of this now being all we have could be terrifying. When placed in situations like these, everyone will react differently. Some will always be a bit more level-headed than others, but to witness such perplexing reactions as shown in Sundown is nearly chaotic at times. Yet Franco clearly always had an end goal in mind, and it’s one that feels necessary in a time like now. It’s best experienced within the context of the film, but trust that Franco doesn’t seem to be making an empty gesture as the credits begin to roll.
As stated, Sundown feels jam packed with ideas, even down to the visual language of the film. The reoccurring motif of a slaughterhouse is perhaps the most viscerally shocking but understandable, as Franco compares it to the Mexican prison system facilities that are in very clear disarray. It uses violence sparsely but effectively, and there’s a level of nonchalance to all of it that feels upsetting due to its raw nature. Say what you will about this film, but its simple presentation is merely a front for a multi-layered film about family, purpose, and a longing for something lost. In a statement about the film, Franco said, “It’s not a coincidence that Sundown takes place in Acapulco… its decay symbolizes a lot of the larger decay in my country”. Yet Franco never feels as if he’s shooting from a place of anger, and that’s important. It ties back into some of the central themes of the film, and makes Sundown all the more fulfilling to experience.
Bleecker Street will release Sundown in select theaters starting January 28th, 2022.