It’s almost impossible to discuss Michel Franco’s 2021 drama Sundown without spoilers, and it’s hard to even explain what I “must” spoil in order to write a proper review. Even being vague risks give the game away.
I don’t know why Franco has done this to me personally. Nevertheless, here we are. I’ll do my best.
Tim Roth stars as Neil Bennett, who is on holiday in Acapulco with his family. The scenery is stunning, and the lavish resort caters to their every whim, but we can tell that some part of Neil isn’t fully here. He has the quiet, turned-off sense of remove that comes with certain stages of depression, as if he can recognize and even appreciate what’s around him … but he can’t enter into it. This may not be a new thing for him, we speculate, since the kids–the roughly college-aged Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and Colin (Samuel Bottomley)–are glad he’s here but have clearly had family vacations without him in the past. Their relative idyll shatters when Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gets a phone call: Please come at once, your mother is in the hospital.
The family rushes to the airport, but they don’t even get all the way there before Alice receives the dreaded-but-inevitable second phone call. She’s shattered by the news of her mother’s death, and she falls apart even more when, right as they’re being rushed through security to make their flight, Neil can’t produce his passport. Must’ve left it in the hotel safe. She would like to wait for him–she needs him for this–but he urges her to go ahead. He’ll follow on the next possible plane.
But he doesn’t. He doesn’t come on the one after that, either.
Instead, Neil checks himself into a cheap hotel. He has drinks on the beach. He falls into bed–and easy, casual intimacy–with local Berenice (Iazua Larios).
He takes Alice’s calls and assures her that he’s doing everything he can: if he can’t find his passport, maybe the embassy can get him temporary credentials and he can at least get home for the funeral. He can skate by on these stories for a while, but every day, the lies get less plausible.
From here, rather than getting into further plot details, I’ll try to explain my experience of watching Sundown.
Sundown is a spare 83 minutes, which is a good length for a film that relies heavily on setting, atmosphere, and mostly low-key performances. We spend a significant amount of time simply following Tim Roth’s character around Acapulco, and those scenes are beautifully photographed and somehow both tense and almost existentially relaxed at the same time. There are only a handful of real “incidents” in the movie, and while they can be surprising or shocking (maybe even too much so), they’re less interesting–and less attention-consuming–than the way the movie routinely shifts how you interpret them.
The downside of this is a deliberate sense of distance that can make the whole feel like less than the sum of the parts. It’s hard not to wonder if Franco’s approach sacrificed some of the story’s emotional impact. But that detachment is a legitimate creative choice, and by the end of the film, I can see why Franco chose it. This isn’t a beautiful shell game all about superficial cleverness; instead, it’s actually an immersive exercise in POV. It may not always be a satisfying one, and I think the film’s sleight of hand sent me off on at least one mental tangent that was distracting rather than thematically necessary, but it’s thoughtful and intriguing.
Sundown is streaming on Hulu.