While on a lavish, tropical getaway in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), niece Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and nephew Colin (Samuel Bottomley), Neil (Tim Roth) experiences a life-changing revelation. It does not occur while he sips margaritas far too early in the morning, nor while lounging in a hammock that overlooks an idyllic, beach-bound sunset one might apply as the screensaver for their laptop. It doesn’t happen while enjoying an evening performance as he dines with his family, nor as he idles in the crystal clear waters of the hotel pool which faces the ocean at his doorstep. It occurs when his sister receives a phone call. Someone in the family is in critical condition at a hospital. Alice, frantic, commands the vacation to be over. Everyone must pack their things. They’re all going home.
Except, Neil doesn’t go home in Mexican writer/director Michel Franco’s Sundown. He doesn’t go home even after things become demonstrably worse—the ailing family member, Neil and Alice’s mother, has passed away while the foursome was en route to the airport. As Alice, bordering hysterics, is ushered to their plane by her doting children, Neil realizes the unthinkable. He’s lost his passport. He has to go back to their hotel to look for it, and his family should go on without him. He’ll meet up with them as soon as he finds it, of course. But we quickly learn that that isn’t really the plan. Neil never returns to the extravagant resort where he and his family had, just hours prior, been lazing around in bathing suits and waited upon by serving staff, and he never intended to. Instead, Neil finds a rundown inn near a crowded beach. Neil never lost his passport, and he will not be going back home to England anytime soon.
Being a critic unfamiliar with Franco’s previous work, including the controversial dystopian drama New Order, I nevertheless found the indulgently nihilistic Sundown to be sort of charming, in a perverse way. Neil’s sister begins to comprehend that her brother has abandoned her. At first, he does tend to her calls—sharing a conversation in one beautifully composed shot of many, while bathed in a soft red light that straddles only a portion of the frame’s center (courtesy of New Order, Holy Motors and Zombi Child DP Yves Cape). But following increasingly irritated voicemails, Alice’s calls are eventually left not just unanswered, but shut away in a drawer in Neil’s hotel room.
Soon, Neil emerges as a gloriously awful protagonist, whose apathy, negligence and, above all, selfishness incur profound misery. We quickly understand that the reason he took the opportunity to leave his former life behind in a split-second moment at the airport was born out of a desire to disavow his wealthy family, cutting ties to the multi-billion dollar fortune he would inherit in the wake of his mother’s death. Forgoing the assumed corruption and decadence inherent to a life spent as an heir to the slaughterhouse industry, Neil resolves to set himself free. Live and love with the common folk in a warm, sunny climate—this latter endeavor soon fulfilled by a beautiful, much younger local woman named Bernice (Iazua Larios).
But Neil isn’t quite ready to leave his privileged life in the rearview. Not yet, despite what he might believe his actions to purport. He is still disinterested in things like making small talk with a lowly taxi driver, or interacting with the locals beyond his romantic relationship with Bernice (who he is getting something out of, sexually). He remains ambivalent as he is waited on while reclining in a cheap, plastic beach chair. As opposed to having his own laughable Eat Pray Love moment of being a white tourist embarking upon self-discovery in a foreign land, Neil only continues to impassively profit off of Acapulco for his own gains, albeit this time in a shittier hotel. His ability to continue staying there at all is entirely motivated by the fact that he has the means. He claims that he’s “not interested in money,” in response to Alice’s desperate inquiry as to why he is deserting their family, and yet absolutely is. Because he is still interested in existing in the world as if he has money. And, actually, because he does, since the terms of his agreement stipulate that he will continue to receive a $10K/month stipend from his family.
What starts off as a simple, even-handed tale of a wealthy man who up and decides to leave his former life of luxury behind and begin anew, turns into a cynical look at disillusioned opulence and the consequences of self-interest born out of that privilege. It’s also a movie about a guy who is desperately trying to vibe. Neil is constantly thrown the world’s worst curveballs as he attempts to reach a moment of Zen that lays just out of his reach. It’s what makes the film darkly funny, even if the circumstances of his stay in Acapulco set off a chain reaction of increasingly absurd narrative developments that, by the end, feel borderline preposterous. But Neil can never catch a break, and the film is surprisingly unexpected, hardly ever a dull moment in its slight 83-minute runtime. Sundown is not a sunny film, it’s true. It’s deeply nihilistic and unpleasant, and even a bit silly. But Franco’s film is nonetheless a warped and fascinating take on class as it ties to egotism. Someone much smarter than me once said that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, or something like that. Neil’s desire to remove himself from the system betrays the fact that he is the system. And, well, it’s the same system in which we all live and die.
Director: Michel Franco
Writers: Michel Franco
Starring: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iazua Larios, Henry Goodman, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Samuel Bottomley
Release Date: January 28, 2022
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.