Sundown instantly strikes viewers with its opening shot of fish gasping on the deck of a boat. Cut to what looks like a GQ ad of a blond man in a billowy dress shirt casually looking down at them as the sound of his niece and nephew jet skiing grows faint in the distance. The way he calmly stares at the sea creatures suffocating under the sun mirrors how writer-director Michel Franco observes the film’s characters struggling to escape tragedy even in the most exotic locales.
The film follows the Bennett family. The aforementioned blond man is Neil (Tim Roth), and he’s on vacation in Acapulco with his sister, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her children, Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and Colin (Samuel Bottomley). Cinematographer Yves Cape’s wide shots seemingly show nothing but fun in the sun, but if you lean in and focus, myriad beer bottles lying around the family’s vacation home suggest a downward spiral or a trauma from which they cannot escape.
The Bennetts’ trip gets cut short when they receive a call about a death in the family. What happens from here is best left a surprise. Let’s just say Neil takes a life-changing turn that Roth and Franco convey casually and quietly, making it all the more shocking.
Sundown is at once traditionally cinematic and evocative of Italian neorealism. It’s what film theorist Siegfried Kracauer would describe as a “found story” that emerges from meandering alongside a character. Films from the Italian neorealist movement are known for their simplicity and short running time, lean slices of life. Like the landmark work of the movement, 1948’s Bicycle Thieves, Sundown is just a few minutes shy of an hour-and-a-half, and it follows a man seeking solace in a war-torn city. While Bicycle Thieves wanders through World War II-era Rome, Sundown explores the gang-ruled areas of present-day Acapulco.
Part of the film is about the impossibility of living in the moment. Neil’s cell phone dings and rings as he sits on the beach, drowning out the constant communication with a bucket of beers. The suspense lies in his stillness. As gangs exchange gunfire amid the sea of tourists, you may recall photos of people crowding beaches at the height of COVID, oblivious to any sense of danger.
From the opening shot of dying fish to that of Neil’s beach chair occupied only by his clothes, Franco lays the symbolism on pretty thick. But Roth brings impressive subtlety to his performance. Other reviews dismiss Neil as a rich, thoughtless jerk, but Roth portrays him as a man deeply haunted, almost a ghost himself. He gives you the sense that demons are holding Neil back from engaging in life. Gainsbourg effectively conveys Alice’s overwhelming frustration toward him and how his alien-like behavior completely mystifies her.
If you’re getting scared away by the comparisons to Italian neorealism and the description of this film as a “slice of life,” rest assured that it’s far from an aimless journey. It takes plenty of jaw-dropping twists and turns that will cast a dark cloud over your head long after the lights go up in the theater.
Sundown opens today at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema and Living Room Theaters in Indianapolis. This is a film well worth seeing on the big screen. Let this found story wash over you and pull you in its undertow.