Michel Franco’s Sundown is captivating and challenging with a magnificent central performance from Tim Roth says Simon Roger Key, who caught the film at the Toronto film festival.
Synopsis: Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) is on holiday in Acapulco, Mexico. He’s staying at a luxurious resort with his sister Allison and her two children. They sunbathe by the infinity pool, drink cocktails and are generally pampered. But, when Allison (Charlotte Gainsbourg) receives a phone call notifying her that their mother has died, the idyllic vacation comes to an abrupt end… or does it?
Similar to Michel Franco’s Nuevo Orden/New Order (Franco, 2020), death permeates Sundown. In a poetic sense, the film’s title alludes to it and within its 84-minutes the characters are all shaped and propelled forward by it (in one way or another). As with Franco’s previous film’s, there’s a threatening aura that hangs over Sundown and its characters.
An empire of slaughterhouses
Neil and Allison’s mother unexpectedly dies. Neil witnesses an execution whilst sunbathing at a beach. There are multiple shootings and off-screen funerals. The Bennett family business is an empire of slaughterhouses – they kill animals in abattoirs for human consumption. The Bennett’s have literally built an empire out of death, and notably, they rarely discuss it. The film is a mediation on death; about how it surrounds us, propels us and is so rarely discussed (even when it directly affects us).
Captivating and challenging
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tim Roth are both accomplished actors, but Sundown rests almost entirely on Roth’s performance, specifically Neil’s burdened shoulders. Roth is fantastic as Neil and he’s a complicated character, one that you won’t necessarily like. He’s softly spoken, somewhat withdrawn, weary and Roth’s performance hints at an overwhelming burden. We aren’t often treated to a protagonist that doesn’t charm us or in some way, reflect our own values. The fact that Neil doesn’t conform to our expectations, is precisely what makes the film so captivating, but equally, challenging.
Sundown’s first fifteen minutes do a wonderful job of challenging our ability to empathise with Neil. When Allison receives the ill-fated call, Neil is emotionless, which is contrasted against her outpouring of grief. Despite a lack of urgency from Neil, the family hurriedly pack their bags and head to the airport. Whereas Allison and her two children are visibly upset, Neil doesn’t appear to feel anything. His actions, after they receive the call, are those of a man going through the motions. However, I don’t believe that’s because he’s managing his grief, instead, he’s managing his family’s expectations. He’s doing what they expect or what they want him to do. However, upon shuffling into the airport in his flip-flops, it’s instantly clear – although not why – that Neil will not be returning home.
Despite Neil’s passport being safely stored in his luggage, Neil makes up an excuse that he’s lost it and that it must be back at the hotel. An airport steward informs them that Neil will be able to catch the next flight home and although everyone is visibly upset, Allison and her children catch their flight as planned. Neil exits the airport, hails a taxi and asks to be taken to any hotel. Neil isn’t done with Acapulco just yet.
Callous and selfish
The temptation to judge Neil is overwhelming, especially as his actions are unexplained for the majority of the film. We rarely see a film’s protagonist display such callous and selfish behaviours. Franco challenges us further because Neil is never cruel or nasty to his family – there’s no intended malice. It’s clear that he cares about his sister and niece and nephew, but he refuses to leave Acapulco or explain why he isn’t supporting them in their hour of need. At one point in the film, Allison vocalises our frustrations as much as her own, asking Neil, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Although Franco does eventually explain Neil’s actions, there was part of me that wished he didn’t. Or rather that it wasn’t explained so completely. The mystery of Neil’s actions is the film’s key component and once it’s explained, then arguably the story is finished. Also, there’s an animal metaphor introduced in the film’s final act. It’s a little on the nose, but arguably the second time it’s used would have been a far subtler and more mysterious point at which to conclude Neil’s story.
‘Living in the moment’ is a trendy mindfulness catchphrase, but Neil is determined to live each day exactly as he sees fit. Which made me wonder, who exactly arranged the family holiday and why? I think it was probably Neil.
Sundown is a challenging film, but I enjoyed its central mystery and found myself enjoying Neil’s lacklustre company. I enjoyed the challenge of looking beyond his actions and trying to understand and empathise with him. In Neil, Tim Roth has reminded me of what a wonderful actor he is – it’s a truly magnificent performance and one that carries the entire film.
All Neil wants to do is soak up the sun and enjoy a cool beer at the beach. Given the tumultuous year or so we’ve all had, I think that’s something we can all identify with.
- Sundown (Franco, 2021) is being screened as part of the Toronto film festival with a release date to be announced.
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