Remarkably patient and unapologetically dark, Michael Franco’s Sundown gives Tim Roth very little to do while also giving him one of the best roles of his career. The film will definitely be off-putting for most audiences.
Roth stars as Neil, a wealthy member of a British beef magnate family. Along with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), niece Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillian), and nephew Colin (Samuel Bottomley) vacation in an upscale Mexican resort. Their days are spent relaxing in the pools and being brought drinks.
Alice receives a call that their mother is sick, and she quickly passes away before they can reach the airport. Distraught, the group plans to leave for the funeral arrangements, but Neil claims he lost his passport and has to return to the resort. The group leaves for England, as Neil climbs in a cab. Instead of returning to the resort, Neil checks in to a dingy hotel and begins to drink on the beach.
That’s essentially the film. Neil passes the days with little care or interaction. He drinks beers from a bucket brought to him by a waiter. His bags are stolen out of the room, he doesn’t care. He flirts and has sex with a bodega worker named Bernice (Iazua Larios), and they do very little. Even when Alice confronts him about his abandonment, he has very little reaction.
It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what Neil is going through, but the film spends so much time observing his inactivity, it forces you to grapple with his emotions, whatever those emotions may be. I kept waiting for some monologue or some big reveal to explain Neil’s actions, but it isn’t ever completely explained. The audience is expected to deal with Neil’s actions as whatever they interpret them to be. Sociopathy, ambivalence, frustration…all possibilities without clear answers.
Roth, though mostly static in action, embodies Neil with an indescribable blankness. Franco and Roth are on the exact same page with Neil. Neither ever judges his actions. His escape is not viewed as the time to freewheel and have fun, but rather to do the absolute least with the time he has. Any activity he spends where he acts like a normal human being is to placate Alice in his attempts to maintain his new life.
Gainsbourg is the shrieking audience surrogate, trying to understand anything Neil is doing. She keeps waiting for him to snap out of whatever state he is in. She plays apoplectic well. Larios is the most dynamic character and a welcome respite from the rote banality of Roth. Neil sits lazily in a chair holding Bernice’s hand while she seductively dances. Her warmth is a much-needed injection of goodness in the dark depths.
A third-act twist gives the film some intrigue, but it’s just another excuse to put Neil in a situation he barely cares about. The film’s ending may be unfulfilling, but Neil is a character we can’t access, so the frustration of his story’s ending should be equally inaccessible.
I have no doubt many people will absolutely hate Sundown, but if you can get on the film’s wavelength, it can be a rewarding glimpse into an unknowable headspace.