Whether desired or not, most of the runtime of Michel Franco‘s Sundown will be spent trying to figure out what exactly is motivating Neil Bennett to avoid returning to his life in London.
An opening montage displays a wealthy family’s picturesque vacation in Acapulco, filled with mouth watering dishes, celebratory instrumentals and extraordinary views. When Alice (not clearly stated as Neil’s wife or sister) gets a call concerning the health of her mother, the family must immediately return. At the airport, Neil claims to have lost his passport, leaving a distraught Alice and her kids to venture on without him. He then proceeds to taxi to the nearest hotel and set up camp, ignoring calls about his passport and the coming funeral for weeks.
From there, the story takes a few unexpected turns, opting for late reveals so subtle that you could almost miss them by blinking. The performances are often what hold it all together. Tim Roth’s charming disconnection plays beautifully off of Iazua Larios’s sizzling power and sincerity (the introduction of her character certainly digs deeper into the heart of the story). As Alice, Charlotte Gainsbourg is compelling in the silences but is sometimes forced into a one note corner. The rest of the ensemble does well to fill in the atmosphere of their briefer moments.
It’s Michel Franco’s world building, shot by Yves Cape and edited by Franco and Oscar Figueroa, which leaves the most lasting impression. Until the consequences catch up to him, it’s hard not to fall for the same environmental, social and culinary pleasures that Neil chooses to enjoy because of how richly they are displayed.
Yet once the story kicks in, incomplete plot threads send uncertain viewers down different paths. Is this a story about running from shame? From the evils of capitalism? From the inevitability of death? Franco seems less invested in telling Neil’s story than hiding it. Subtext always creates strong writing, and the dialogue here was sharp, but subtext with nothing to hide defeats the point.
Sundown is now playing in Select Theaters