Sundown (France/Mexico/Sweden, 2022)

February 02, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sundown Poster

Sundown is draped in a haze of uncertainty, with writer/director Michel Franco (Chronic, After Lucia) intentionally obscuring key details at the outset to keep the audience in a state of partial awareness. This lends a tint of mystery to what, told in a more forthright fashion, might be a straightforward drama. The meaning of the title, which has nothing to do with Gordon Lightfoot’s hit single, isn’t apparent until late in the proceedings but proves to be an apt descriptor of the story seen in retrospect.

The movie opens innocently enough with a family of four on a vacation at a resort in Acapulco. The “older generation” is represented by Neil (Tim Roth) and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The “younger generation” is Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and her brother, Colin (Samuel Bottomley). They appear to be doing all the things families do on vacation, with lots of sunbathing and water-play. It’s noted that Neil may be a somewhat reluctant participant – at one point, Alice thanks him for agreeing to come. Midway through the stay in Mexico, they receive a report from back home of the death of a loved one. Hasty preparations are made for a departure but, when the group reaches the airport, Neil discovers that he has lost his passport. Alice, Alexa, and Colin have no choice but to board the plane without him. However, instead of returning to the resort to search for the missing documentation, Neil goes to another, seedier hotel, where he drops off his belongings before heading out to the beach to drink beer and lie in the sun. While stringing his family along via cryptic phone calls, Neil continues his double-life, which includes him taking up with a beautiful young woman, Bernice (Iazua Larios).

For the viewer, much of Sundown’s running length (or at least the last hour of it) is spent attempting to decode Neil’s motivations. Although some of his actions seem capricious and cruel, there’s a sense that this isn’t his intention. He seems to genuinely care about Alice, Alexa, and Colin, but has difficulty recognizing the damage he’s doing to his relationships as a result of his flight of ennui.

Tim Roth is perfectly cast as Neil. Throughout his acting career, Roth has excelled at portraying opaque characters whose true motivations are hidden. In his best-known role, as Mr. Orange in Quentin Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, he played the betrayer – an undercover cop who infiltrated the crime gang. There are echoes of that in Sundown, although Neil’s betrayal is of an emotional nature. Roth understands how to gradually twist the viewer’s perceptions about the character as Franco’s screenplay drops revelations like breadcrumbs.

The relationship between Neil and Bernice, although critical to the advancement of the story and to peeling back the layers of Neil’s character, is too convenient. I didn’t really believe it; it happens too quickly and the intensity that develops isn’t organic. It’s unclear why a young, attractive woman would find herself drawn to an unkempt, vacationing European and, once he tells her details about his personal life, why she would believe those. The chemistry evinced by Roth and Iazua Larios is strong enough to erase some of these concerns.

During Sundown’s final 30 minutes, the story enters conventional thriller territory with an attempted kidnapping, gunfire, and a wrongful imprisonment. These aspects ratchet up the tension and raise the stakes without disorienting the viewer. The ending, although melancholy, feels appropriate for the character and his circumstances. Throughout the entire production, there’s an excellent sense of place with both the touristy and less friendly aspects of Acapulco contrasting with one another. These real-world contradictions are less compelling than those in Neil’s personality but they make for a fascinating backdrop to the unveiling of the truths about one man’s psychological dissolution.

Sundown (France/Mexico/Sweden, 2022)

Director: Michel Franco
Cast: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iazua Larios, Henry Goodman, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Samuel Bottomley
Home Release Date: 2022-05-17
Screenplay: Michel Franco
Cinematography: Yves Cape
U.S. Distributor: Bleecker Street
Run Time: 1:23
U.S. Release Date: 2022-02-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Subtitles: In English and Spanish with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1