Who among us hasn’t wished they could stay on vacation forever? What would happen if you did?
That’s the easy explanation of “Sundown,” Mexican director Michel Franco’s new film about a wealthy man who goes to uncharted lengths to avoid dealing with his problems. But nothing about this slow burn drama is easy on the intake. The film follows Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) while on vacation with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her children in sunny, almost blindingly beautiful Acapulco. When an unexpected tragedy interrupts their getaway, the family rushes back to England – all except for Neil, who has forgotten his passport at the hotel. The family leaves, and Neil … just stays.
“Sundown” is darkly humorous, sometimes shocking, and often apathetic to the point of catatonia. It can be frustratingly ambivalent, so intent on cynicism that when a glimmer of sentiment squeaks through it’s beautifully empty facade, it’s unclear what the audience is supposed to discern. Still, Franco’s blunt, matter-of-fact style and Roth’s stolid performance make for an intriguing journey that takes nihilism to its logical conclusion – death.
Death permeates “Sundown.” The first shot opens abruptly on an image of freshly caught fish as they gasp for their final breaths. They’re past the moment when they might flop around violently and are eerily calm as the sun beats down on their squelching flesh, their mouths agape and their eyes unseeing. The camera suddenly cuts to Neil as he stares down at the fish, almost as lifeless as they are. He sways absentmindedly with an unfeeling gaze until his niece and nephew demand his attention. “Wake up!” they scream, and Neil suddenly becomes warm as he looks at them – quite different from the lifeless husk we saw just moments ago.
Imagery of death and decay comes up again and again throughout “Sundown,” projecting a creeping sense of doom that will catch up with Neil as he moves forward with his ill-conceived plan to escape. There are numerous shots that focus on food, but those meals look more like roadkill than sustenance, with bones poking out of half-eaten fish, flies hovering nearby hoping to get a bite. Later revelations about Neil’s family’s business come as no surprise because Franco’s fixation on death has carefully primed the audience to expect rot – no matter how beautiful the setting.
Roth gives a brilliantly elusive performance, carefully litigating what he projects to the camera versus what he shows to the characters around him, but still impenetrable. He’s often lit from behind or encased in a shadow, rendering him a silhouette the audience can’t fully take measure of, and he’s often wearing sunglasses, making his full expressions difficult to grasp. When the initial tragedy forces the family to cut their vacation short, Alice is visibly distraught, overcome with debilitating sobs. Neil, on the other hand, is calm. Roth projects a coolness that plays like strength in the moment, but as the film progresses morphs into something more unnerving. On his first day alone in Acapulco, Neil sits motionless on the beach, completely undisturbed by the flurry of activity around him. He often falls into these trance-like states, a high-pitched ringing drowning out the world around him – and he’s often knocked out of these stupors by the rattling of his cell phone. Alice calls him multiple times throughout the film with questions about when he’s coming home, and the discrepancy between Roth’s tone of voice and his physical presence in these moments is striking. He sounds reassuring and kind, but the glazed, exhausted look in his eyes belies any comfort he could give.
As Alice becomes suspicious of Neil’s promise to come home and Neil’s ability to put up a front deteriorates, the muted rattling of Neil’s cell phone drones on like a never-ending annoyance he can’t shake. But that’s all anything ever seems to be – an annoyance. Events others might find shocking, or even traumatizing, barely seem to faze Neil – just mere mosquitos to swat away. When his hotel room is robbed, he’s unperturbed. When he witnesses a murder on the beach in broad daylight, he hardly jumps. This and the few other violent sequences in the film are shot bluntly with little to no fanfare. There’s blood and shock value to be sure, but the action often doesn’t take place in the focus of the frame or is over before it really begins. This stark, brutally sanitized form of filmmaking further reinforces the nihilism at the heart of this story.
As the situation in Acapulco becomes more dire, certain plot developments towards the film’s end make its unrelenting apathy frustrating, particularly in regards to Neil’s relationship with Berenice (Iazua Larios), a woman he begins dating in Acapulco. Neil’s interactions with Berenice are the most emotional ones in the film. He seems genuinely taken with her, and she, him – although she’s so sparsely written, it’s hard to ascertain why.
For a film that seems so intent on the fruitlessness of love and connection, there’s a way to read Neil’s actions at the end of the film, particularly towards Berenice, as a labor of love, a strange tonal choice given everything that’s happened up until this point. But there is no catharsis in “Sundown,” whether those final moments are borne out of love, selfishness, apathy, or sadness, the film isn’t interested in confirming that either way, leaving us waiting for resolution like a dying fish flopping in the sun.