TIFF Review – Sundown
Writer and director Michel Franco presents a film that is presumed to be about one man’s introspection of his life. A quiet look at a man who is tired of regretfully living a life he doesn’t want and makes a drastic change. Franco stated in a video before the screening that he used this film to try to deal with his feelings about his home, Acapulco, Mexico, and it didn’t really end up helping him. Franco did make a brilliant film that gives the audience a sense of quiet and calm and then throws an unexpected wrench in it all.
Sundown (2021) begins with a family vacationing at an expensive resort in Acapulco. At the beginning of the film, I assumed that Neil (Tim Roth) was a husband and father, but this proved untrue. However, I don’t know if that was the intention of Franco for the audience to presume the familial relationship. Neil is with his sister, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her two teenage children. While there, Alice gets a call that their mom has gotten sick and then passes away before the family can leave Mexico. Cutting their trip short, they rush to the airport. Neil discovers that he has forgotten his passport, and he must stay behind. What ensues is questionable behavior and deliberately lying to Alice in order to stay in Mexico and pursue a different life.
Neil doesn’t say a lot in Sundown, and honestly, it’s not something you even really recognize. He speaks when he needs to and is primarily interested in taking his environment in through his senses, like basking in the sun’s warmth and relaxing on the beach. He is a passive participant, and I believe it is by choice. There is no anger within him. His family is wealthy, making their fortune from producing meat (slaughterhouses, feedlots, etc.). There are visual clues to an inner struggle in Neil coming to terms with a life made fruitful by the deaths of animals.
The distressing part of Neil’s indifference to his family is in response to a tragedy. His sister needed him the most while arranging a funeral and mourning their mother, but Neil essentially checks out. He initially answers phone calls and texts; he grows tired of the situation and lying, so he chucks the phone in a drawer and forgets about it. There is a nonchalance about Neil, and his family does not understand him. The audience, at times, doesn’t too.
I don’t think anyone can watch Sundown and not question Neil’s motives and if he is undergoing a mental breakdown. Putting yourself in his shoes, you could imagine that maybe something traumatic happened to him back in London, perhaps he hated his family, or they were vile to him. What spoils some of the illusion of a man just chucking his previous life away is that Neil has the means to make this choice. He can afford a hotel, food, etc. while he ponders his life and takes a pause. He can live in partial chaos and not be fazed by it.
There is an immense twist in the film that will wake you up immediately from any notion you had about the story and Neil, and I am hoping that no review will spoil that experience. The Acapulco setting felt like a love letter to the city but with a heavy dose of realism added to it. With Sundown, Franco crafted an exquisite story about a man struggling quietly with his past and not coming to terms with his future.