With his latest movie, Sundown, writer-director Michel Franco (After Lucia, New Order), delivers a fearlessly honest take on grief, love, and the human condition. The drama probes deep and at times devastating questions about familial relationships that complicate notions of what we do and do not owe one another in the face of tragedy.
Tim Roth, in a typically splendid performance, plays a British man named Neil, who vacations in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two children. The movie begins with the four lounging on the beach, sipping alcohol at an expensive resort. In the little time we get to spend with Alice, we see her preoccupied with an impulse to work. The children playfully bring Alice away from her phone, urging her to be more present and play games.
On the surface, Roth appears more present in some ways. Emails and work calls seem to be nowhere on his radar, for example. Yet he feels off. He is passive and aloof. His body may be there, but his mind is elsewhere.
Their trip is soon cut short after the family learns Alice and Neil’s mother has died. Just as they arrive at the airport and prepare to walk through customs, Neil says he forgot his passport at the resort. He tells them to go on without him. He will get the next flight.
But instead, Neil checks himself into a cheap hotel by the beach. He decides to stay in Mexico. Indefinitely. The movie tells us very little about his thinking or reasoning. The questions raised by his sudden abandonment are never fully answered. We may only infer if we feel so inclined.
Sundown captures the sounds of Acapulco: the indiscernible chatter of beachgoers, the clink of glasses, the waves. Neil, for his part, hardly talks. We hear what the character hears as he drinks, lounges, and eats by the beach. Days or weeks may be passing. Eventually, Neil falls in love with a local shopkeeper, Bernice (Iazua Larios). The two hardly talk. And we learn far too little about Bernice. Their relationship feels more physical than verbal, as it relates to both sex and the more general desire for companionship.
Among the central tensions of the movie is the one between Franco and his audience. The filmmaker does not relent in his decision to provide little to no explanation for Neil’s actions. There is no grand monologue. No inner struggle makes its way to Neil’s lips, for example, nor does one play out across his face. Instead, he just keeps living. He gets lost in the repetitions of his new, and in some ways simpler, life in Acapulco. Thus, the interplay is between what we think as we watch and what we think Neil thinks as he lives.
Franco leaves the audience to grapple with Neil’s moral complexities, guiding us nowhere. We live in the moral gray area of Neil’s actions. There are times when we cannot believe his selfishness. And at other moments, we empathize with his loss and mental state — is he not allowed to grieve and exist in his own way?
The subtleties of Roth’s performance seamlessly walk this tightrope. We may experience a range of emotions with the movie but are never bored, even during many of its slowest moments. As Neil just continues to drink, and sit, and make love, and walk around, Sundown can be funny. But there’s a sadness to the whole ordeal that never wanes.
As time passes by, we learn more about Neil’s life. He has no other immediate family. He loves his niece and nephew very much. And he is the co-heir to a sizable fortune and his family’s meatpacking empire. As a result, all of this makes Neil’s decision more complex.
His class opens a window into how and for whom society allows room for introspection and grief. Only a person of means could do what Neil does. The time, space, and energy to reflect and embody one’s own mind is a privilege few can afford. Modern life makes little room for such simple needs. Neil’s unfettered access to wealth, for instance, gives him a rare chance to tap into his own humanity in his way. And while we cannot ignore his selfishness, there’s a part of us that years for this freedom too.
We feel the presence of Neil’s gender throughout the whole ordeal. His decision to just walk away and do as he pleases feels endlessly masculine. He leaves his sister alone to bury their mother and run the businesses. If he loves them so much, why just abandon him? No easy answer can be found. His actions are simultaneously infuriating and deeply sad.
By the movie’s end, more tragedy strikes. We get a partial explanation for Neil’s behavior. But it doesn’t make us feel any better. Instead, we are left grappling with the nature of time itself. How do we spend the years we have on Earth? Do we owe anyone our time? Or is it ultimately all our own?
What Sundown makes clear is that the answers to these questions may vary depending on the person and circumstance. The inevitable fact, though, is that each choice has a consequence, good or bad. And intention aside, we will live with them for the remainder of the time we have left, no matter where we go.
Sundown hits theaters in the United States on January 28, 2022.
Related Topics: Michel Franco