Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) seems like a pretty normal British guy on holiday with his family in Acapulco. He, a woman, and two teenage kids enjoy themselves amid the luxury of an evidently expensive and exclusive resort. Cocktails are drunk. Pools are swum in. Local entertainment is appreciated with a polite smile. Then they receive horrible news and must return home. At the airport, Neil declares that he’s forgotten his passport. He needs to go back to the hotel and pick it up before getting on the next flight out of Mexico. His passport is in his bag, and once his family are gone, he hops into a taxi and goes to a new hotel.
Mexican director Michel Franco’s last film New Order was an anxiety-inducing dystopian drama that proved to be heavily divisive among critics and local audiences alike. Some appreciated its brutal and ceaseless display of the fallout from a military overthrow of the government. Others unfavorably called it the sequel to Joker, only with less subtlety (ouch). For those of us who saw New Order (which is available on Mubi), it’s hard not to be on edge for most of Sundown, especially given how deceptively peaceful its opening scenes are. This film is something altogether droller, more oblique, and quieter, right up until it isn’t.
Neil, who Roth plays with an almost infuriatingly lackadaisical quality, seems happy with his family, who are later revealed to be his sister (an always-welcome Charlotte Gainsbourg getting a couple of stand-out scenes) and niece and nephew. We don’t sense any tensions or past conflicts in those early scenes. His calm over the tragic news they receive seems reassuring until his lie is revealed. Throughout the brief narrative (the film is barely 80 minutes long), Roth gives away very little. Neil talks intermittently, remains stoic, and appears almost disinterested in life for as long as is possible for him to pull off.
After the initial lie — a moment that seems wholly spontaneous rather than a long-calculated scheme — Neil moves into a beach house hotel that is decidedly less luxurious and tourist-friendly than the resort he just left. This is the Acapulco the white British visitors don’t go to, the holiday town of the locals who don’t have the privilege to be cloistered in luxury. Neil says he doesn’t care about money, but that’s the kind of smug statement one can only declare when they’ve never had to truly worry about such things. Drinking by the crowded beach, half asleep with buckets of empty beer bottles at his feet, he seems oblivious to what’s happening around him. Armed soldiers patrol the beach while he snoozes. A man is shot in front of him, a scene filmed as matter-of-factly as Neil’s sunbathing, and it barely registers. It’s not as though he’s ignorant of the potential dangers of the area, as his sister repeatedly informs him in the phone calls that he seems determined to ignore. It’s just that he has no interest in them. The ultimate privilege.
The pacing and deliberate lack of answers across this short film may infuriate some. It really takes its time before offering any kind of tangible answer for Neil’s decision. Really, it isn’t a question that’s answered until the final minutes. That’s not to say that nothing happens. The existential ennui that Neil steeps himself in reveals much, if not all, about his motivation. It certainly speaks volumes to the blinding levels of privilege under which he operates. He’s trying to continue the fantasy of a ‘dream vacation,’ possibly indefinitely, which is a stark contrast to those who actually live there. He begins an affair of sorts with a local woman, complete with the language barrier, but doesn’t seem to treat it with any kind of seriousness.
Things happen, and there are a few real surprises. Boy, I did not expect them! Like I said earlier, I should have remained on edge, what with this being a Michel Franco production. Those seemingly low stakes get high really quickly! To say any more, however, would be to give away too much. The end result, though, is one that feels pointed in a way one wouldn’t expect from something this dry. There’s only so much time that you’re able to float through life like debris before you sink into the dirt, and privilege only cushions the blow for a while. Much of what Sundown does may feel frivolous in a way that only leads to more questions. By the conclusion, you may wonder why you bothered. I’ve certainly seen some critics express their frustration over the narrative. Personally, I found more to be satisfied by than discouraged. If you’re up for it, try to watch it knowing as little as possible and don’t be deceived by that seeming gentleness.
Sundown was screened at the 2021 TIFF film festival. It does not currently have a wide release date.
Header Image Source: TIFF