Review: SUNDOWN, Quietly Extreme and Surreal
Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in a drama directed by Michel Franco.
Neil Bennett is on vacation. Nobody, not even the universe itself, is going to stop him from idling by the water, drinking a lot of alcohol, and taking a time-out from life.
The wealthy scion of a farming and meat empire in the UK, he is staying at a luxury hotel and spa near Acapulco, Mexico with his sister and her adult children, until a death in the family breaks the 1% idyll, and summons them home. Under a fabricated pretense, he instead taxis back to the beach, this time in town, with the unwashed masses, to continue drinking beer and avoiding any obligation to his family or his wealth. His actions, his intentions, even his body language invite the viewer to judge, in the harshest light possible, such an egregious violation of social norms.
Sundown is a provocative (and darkly humorous) cinematic voyage of discovery: the enigma of Neil, a man who is out of place with everyone around him, his family, and the local woman (Iazua Larios) he befriends, and has sex with in his cheap hotel room.
Tim Roth has always been a chameleon on screen, from the youthful, boorish thugs he played in Stephen Frears' The Hit, and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, to affable goofballs in Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead, Pulp Fiction and Four Rooms, to a likable but doomed protagonist in Reservoir Dogs, to effete terrifying villains in Rob Roy and Planet of the Apes, to an impotent victim in Funny Games (US), even as a fade-into-the-wallpaper lawyer cum father-figure in Dark Water. The actor flits effortlessly between mega-blockbusters, arthouse curios, Hollywood remakes, and multiseason-long stints on television.
Mexican director Michel Franco puts all of Roth's considerable subtle skills into play here under the blistering Mexican sun. First and foremost, by consciously having him, as Neil, never really fit into a scene. An aloof outsider, emotionally distant from whatever drama he happens to find himself in orbit, be it fighting with his sister over money, or being preyed upon by the local scam artists.
The camera even seems to forget he is present at times, sitting by an infinity pool or in a squalid prison; even though Roth is in nearly every single shot of the film. This is all by terribly clever design; to lull the viewer into that hypnagogic space of a distant beach vacation: engaged complacency.
Neil's workaholic sister Anne (a robust performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg), the anti-Neil, who is all on task and all business, cannot even break for a consequence-free game of cards with her children. While on vacation.
Even in her extreme grief she is large and in charge, and pissed about her brother's unfathomable behaviour. "Are you doing this for the the same reason you left me with all of our problems?" She curses him out, from a place of love, but mostly out of frustration from a lack of understanding.
We can sympathize with her pragmatic rage, and the position she is left in, even if most of us are not billionaires. Even when not present in the film, Anne has a surrogate intrusion in the form of rings and beeps of Neil's iPhone (he eventually, calmly, puts it in a drawer) and corporate-lawyer visits, that threaten his escapist bubble.
Sundown is also a survey of contrasts. The film opens with beautiful fish gasping for breath in the sunshine, sparkling while helpless. Later, there is an image of that same fish eaten down to the bone. These are portentous images.
There is blood and sex (and stray dogs) present in the busy hustle of the seaside tourist city. The banal and the avant garde mingle in a way that is reminiscent of a Bruno Dumont film. Punctuation marks of poverty and violence on the beach contrast with the monied manufactured serenity of the spa.
The quietly extreme and surreal drama of Sundown kind of sneaks up on you until the surprising and inevitable conclusion is both revealed and not revealed. This is an arthouse picture, after all. In this day and age, where so many films needlessly dart and dash past the two-hour mark, Franco shows that the infinite is possible in a mere 82 minutes.
The film opens today in select Los Angeles and New York movie theaters via Bleecker Street.