Director: Michel Franco
Cast: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samuel Bottomley, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Iazua Larios
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
A group of four British people (two adults, two teenagers) are vacationing in a plush villa that overlooks the sea somewhere sunny. They clearly live a very comfortable life as they have servants bringing them cocktails as they lounge by their infinity pool. Suddenly, the woman receives a phone call from back home with some upsetting news about her mother. She is distraught and orders everyone to pack their bags so they can get on the first flight home. At the airport, the man, Neil (Tim Roth) says he can’t find his passport and has to return to the resort to find it, that he will get the next flight back to London once he’s retrieved it.
That’s about all we know of Michel Franco’s Sundown for the first 10 minutes or so. It takes a substantial amount of time to even learn anyone’s name (the mother, Alice, is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the teenagers are her children), or to find out where this is all taking place (Acapulco).
The film follows Neil not as he returns to the resort for his passport, but as he relaxes into a more modest hotel by the beach, his passport safely in the inside pocket of his carry-on case where it’s been the whole time.
The narrative unravels so slowly, it’s like a crack in a wall slowly splintering. Tim Roth plays Neil with a contagious serenity, his quiet introspection anchored by very minimal dialogue that takes a ‘tell, don’t show’ approach to storytelling over the course of the 83-minute run. It’s only through Neil’s casual conversations with his new love interest, a bodega assistant called Berenice (Iazua Larios), that we find out that Alice is his sister, not his wife, the teens his niece and nephew. Neil spends his days drinking beer slumped in a chair on the seafront, his nights dining out with Berenice, his phone switched off and shut in a drawer. Oh, and the siblings are absolutely stinking rich heirs to a meatpacking business.
Because of this brevity, we never really find out why Neil decided to stay in Acapulco, or why he refused to go home to England for his mother’s funeral, or why he signed over his half of the family business to his sister. There is a revelation at the end that serves as some explanation, but the viewer is mostly encouraged to piece the story together themselves and come to their own conclusions.
The sparseness and lack of affectation allows for a meditation on the frailty of human existence and all that torments us: love, loss, family, health, having too much time, not having enough time. It upends your expectations of the privileged-middle-aged-man-in-a-crisis trope Franco could quite easily have slipped into, and Roth plays it to perfection. Neil’s in nirvana sitting in his plastic chair, staring out into the horizon with an existential half-smile on his face and the tide lapping his bare feet, entirely detached from the baser urges, at peace with his own hollowness.