When we meet Neil Bennett (Tim Roth, ‘The Hateful Eight’) in Michel Franco’s ‘Sundown’, it isn’t long before his life starts to fall apart. For over 83 minutes, a small lie balloons into everything he has crumbling before his very eyes. But oddly, he is almost entirely apathetic about it - and, in most instances, he perpetuates his sad state of affairs. Self-destructive behaviour takes many forms, but the extremity of Neil’s reticence is truly bizarre. And as we follow him on his spiralling path, it makes for an engaging mystery and terrific material for Tim Roth.
His descent begins in Acapulco, Mexico, while vacationing with his sister, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg, 'Antichrist'), and her children. The blissful holiday takes a sharp turn when Alice discovers their mother has passed away back in London. They rush to the airport to return home; however, Neil states he can't find his passport and will have to return to the hotel to find it. Except Neil didn't lose his passport, and chooses instead to stay in Acapulco. This decision, and Neil's growing indifference to responsibility, makes him more detached from his family. But while he starts to find comfort in his new life, he puts his family in harm's way when they try to intervene.
‘Sundown’ is a delightful character piece about a man who seems to attract trouble even when he’s not looking for it. He truly just wants to sit on the beach, have a few drinks and bathe in the tranquillity, but life keeps wanting to take him away. Initially, the film frames its conflict around Neil being caught in his lie, but it instead takes some intriguing directions I wouldn’t dare spoil. These directions are based on how impassive Neil is to the whole situation, and it makes for fascinating viewing. He’s a difficult character to relate to, but it makes for a unique trajectory. His decisions are hard to watch, yet I can’t help but feel engrossed as I wait for his decisions to eventually affect him.
The character certainly offers a challenge to its actor, but thankfully, Tim Roth is terrific as Neil. He is masterfully subdued in his performance. Roth imbues Neil with a lot of interiority, and as the character’s choices and responses get increasingly puzzling, his subtle approach only benefiting this enigma of a man. He gives very little away but still manages to be a compelling presence. He knows when to exude a bit of emotion so that we know that Neil’s unbothered attitude is not entirely uncaring to those around him. For a complicated character, I genuinely think that Roth portrays Neil in the best manner possible.
A delightful character piece about a man who seems to attract trouble even when he’s not looking for it. He truly just wants to sit on the beach, have a few drinks and bathe in the tranquillity, but life keeps wanting to take him away.
Roth’s delicate performance works in tandem with the atmosphere crafted by Michel Franco. Firstly, the film is beautifully shot. So much so, for all the mayhem Neil causes by electing to stay in Acapulco, Franco and cinematographer Yves Cape go to great lengths to showcase the city for all its paradisal qualities. However, Franco sharply juxtaposes the city with an, at times, nihilistic story. It makes for a strange pit in your stomach where you can never feel too comfortable despite the idyllic surroundings. But despite the dark themes and heavenly scenery, the film is always stripped back. It resists the urge to go crazy and takes time to tell its story. ‘Sundown’ requires patience, but it’s all in service of building upon its bleak foundations.
It all gels together very nicely for something that aims to be both beautiful and nasty. And what is perhaps most remarkable is that it is able to achieve everything it needs to in just over 80 minutes. The story is economical, wasting no time telling the tale of Neil’s odyssey. However, things never feel rushed to get to the point. It moves at a brisk pace, but it still makes time to feel thoughtful. There’s something worth appreciating in an opaque character piece that knows how to move.
As we reach the second half of the year, 'Sundown' has been a welcome surprise to the films I've seen in 2022. Incredibly methodical in its approach, the film is able to be bleak, humorous, and masterfully human with little issue. Tim Roth puts in another terrific performance, made all the more impressive by the character he had to bring to life. And it is a film that has stuck in my head in the days following my initial viewing. While amid the American summer, with blockbusters left, right, and centre, don't let 'Sundown' be stuck behind the clouds.