We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Every vacationer has a moment when they wonder what would happen if they never returned home. It is a tantalizing idea, an indulgence on the last day of ocean views and cocktails with little umbrellas in them, as someone is looking down the barrel of returning to traffic, endless meetings, and workplace anxiety.
Sundown, the new dramatic thriller from Mexican filmmaker Michael Franco, attempts to complicate that fantasy with the abdication of real responsibility, and a hero who selfishly plunges himself in a delicate socioeconomic milieu he does not care to understand. Like Franco’s previous film, New Order (2020), Sundown (2021) opts for the facsimile of depth over the real thing. Provocation only works when the filmmaker has the wherewithal to see their idea to its logical conclusion, and in scene after scene, Franco pulls his punches.
The opening scenes depict an idyll familiar to anyone who scrolls through Instagram. A family is on vacation at an exclusive Acapulco resort, the sort with infinity pools, where guests take golf cart rides between the lobby and their secluded cabana. Tim Roth plays Neil, who is enjoying the good life at this resort with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two children. An unexpected phone call upends their vacation: Alice’s mother dies suddenly. Neil observes Alice without much empathy, going through the motions of returning to London, but at the last possible moment, he tells her he forgot his passport at the hotel. She is too grief-stricken to realize this is a transparent lie, so Neil returns to his Acapulco vacation, this time staying in a seedier hotel. Soon he strikes up a relationship with Bernice (Iazua Larios)—their language barrier is not a problem—and ignores Alice’s constant calls and texts.
To Franco’s credit (he also wrote the script), he preserves a sense of surprise throughout Neil’s extended holiday. It sometimes takes a second to figure out whether what we see is actually happening, or part of Neil’s imagination. There are flashes of violence, a comment on income inequality in a community defined by poverty and obscene wealth—that come during periods of supposed calm (Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, who worked with Roth before his Funny Games remake, is a clear influence). But whereas Haneke has a withering point of view over his characters and stories, exacting psychological torture on them, Franco cannot muster the same critique for Neil. He remains a curiously static figure, and Roth’s performance offers little sense of his interiority. There is some uncertainty of just how far he will push his extended holidays, a question that can only sustain one act of a film, not the entire time. When we learn more about Neil and his backstory clicks into shape, Franco opts for motivations that are depressingly familiar.
If individual scenes have tension and ambiguity, the larger story is where Franco loses his nerve. In scene after scene, he dampens the breadth of Neil’s transgression. Early scenes suggest that Neil and Alice are in an unhappy marriage, for example, and later we learn they are siblings, not spouses. That detail is almost cowardly: Why not make Neil into a rotten husband and father, as opposed to a rotten brother and uncle—and son? Perhaps like Neil, Franco wants to abdicate some responsibility as filmmaker and not consider the full implications of his premise. His preference for half-measures continues toward the final scenes where one additional detail might recalibrate everything we know about the plot, except Franco keeps its exact implications ambiguous. If we consider what the final scene means for what precedes it, Sundown amounts to little more than a cruel joke, and Franco is the only one who gets it.
Guilt might be an inevitable subtext to many holidays at the beach. As vacationers leave the airport for their all-inclusive packages, they pass locals who do not live so glamorously, and these locals are often the same people who see that every whim is met. The recent HBO miniseries The White Lotus brilliantly depicts all the anxiety and resentment that this can provide, while Sundown never skewers its characters with the same mix of disdain and empathy. Neil indulges himself because he can and because he wants to, and Franco sneers at anyone who wants more. Roth, Franco, and the rest of the cast and crew must have had gorgeous digs while they worked on this shallow film about shallow people, so perhaps we should at least admire their hustle for getting to work in paradise.
Sundown opens at E Street Cinema on Feb. 4.