Sundown opens with a series of images of a family—Neil (Tim Roth), Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), and Colin (Samuel Bottomley)—enjoying a vacation. Few words are spoken, but we can tell they share an easy affection for each other. It feels like a table setting for the film to come.
It is not.
The whole film will unspool in precisely this manner. Hushed. Impressionistic. Questions answered that you never thought to ask. Questions that feel vital are left totally unanswered. It is an accomplishment, an impressive show of control from writer-director Michael Franco and Cinematographer Yves Cape. It also means Sundown is more of a tone poem than a film.
Some outlets have described this film as a “thriller.” Unfortunately, nothing about Sundown resembles a thriller in pacing, story structure, or central concern. There are only two acts of violence, both shocking, only one of which we ever come close to understanding. There is a mystery but only for the viewers. Everyone in the film already knows the answer or doesn’t even know enough to ask. It makes Limits of Control seem like a wild thrill ride by contrast.
The plot, such as it is, is this: the aforementioned family is indeed enjoying their vacation in Acapulco until they receive bad news from home. They rush to the airport to get back to England only to find Neil has misplaced his passport somewhere along the way. The three others go on without him while he says he’ll return to the hotel to find the passport and be back as fast as possible to catch the next flight. Except for the moment they leave, there’s nothing as fast as possible about anything he does.
Roth gives Neil a compelling stillness. He resembles nothing so much as a Bartleby the Scrivener of the vacation setting. Yet, there is something intriguing about him that draws in the viewers and the characters he meets. You notice certain strange things about him. His flat affect, his equally vague reaction to nearly every social interaction, the fact that he never eats food, ever, even while at meals with others. Surely something big is happening here?
However, it begins to grate for the viewers with time. He stops seemingly stoic and starts feeling blank. He may have secrets, but one feels increasingly less interested in discovering them if following him around longer is the price. And when the mystery is revealed, it is unsatisfying, an easily guessed thing that nonetheless fails to answer almost any questions about what we’ve witnessed.
Can you watch something wonderfully acted made with care and control by an obviously talented director and still not recommend it? Sundown suggests that you can, in fact, do just that. So I am. Unless you are in the mood for a film’s aesthetics to just wash over you, Sundown ultimately has little to offer.
Sundown is in theaters now.
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Image Credit: Bleecker Street.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.