Michel Franco Confounds our Expectations in ‘Sundown’
How quickly we make assumptions and judge the actions of others. We all do it. In Sundown, writer-director Michel Franco (New Order, 2020) seizes on this common human trait in this unconventional film centered on a man who simply doesn’t act like we expect him to. Because of our tendencies to judge, Franco is able to confound, even frustrate us, by slowly revealing details that we wouldn’t have guessed.
To pull this off, the filmmaker needs and receives a tremendous performance from Tim Roth. The actor takes a much different approach than his usual animated tic style, and here is exceedingly understated, so much so that we are a bit uncomfortable watching him. He rarely speaks and seems distant from the others. The film opens with a family vacationing in Acapulco.
They are clearly well-to-do folks, as evidenced by the stunning resort suite. Neil (Mr. Roth) and Allison Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are on holiday with two older kids Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan). Our assumptions about what we are seeing are in full bloom, and that continues when Allison receives a call about a family tragedy.
As the family frantically packs and rushes to the airport for an early flight home, Neil claims to have left his passport at the hotel and will catch the next flight home. Instead, the film and Neil take a much different path…one that leads to Neil becoming even more withdrawn. He moves into a cheap motel and spends his time lounging on the beach with a bucket of beer by his side. He befriends Berenice, a local played by Iazua Larios. Yet even then, Neil puts forth little effort to communicate. We keep asking, “What is wrong with him?” “What is he doing?” These are the same questions Allison asks when she returns to confront him.
As viewers, we are constantly revising the conclusions we previously jumped to as the details slowly eke out. This will likely cause frustration for some viewers, especially since Neil is not a likable guy – he just gives us nothing to relate to. Checking out from the pressures of one’s life is never as romantic as it might sound, yet Neil seems extremely comfortable with his decisions. Class and cultural differences are at play here, and it’s possible Roth and the film are at their best when answers aren’t being provided. At least that’s when the most tension is present. Franco’s film is an unusual one, and certainly not one that everyone will appreciate, but he and Roth give us plenty to digest.