A clutch of freshly-caught fish glisten in the sun, their tails flapping, their gills pumping as they gasp for oxygen, all under the impassive eyes of Neil (Tim Roth). And, after watching Michel Franco’s Sundown, you’ll get a similar feeling – the sense of being deprived of knowledge essential to understanding the film. Starved of it, so that you’re not so much a viewer but the director’s plaything.
It starts intriguingly enough, with Neil and his family staying in five star luxury in Acapulco – infinity pools, fine dining where the waiter brings the steaks to the table for approval, constant cocktails – when a phone call changes everything. There’s been a death back home in London but, when the family arrive at the airport for their hastily-arranged flight, Neil discovers he’s left his passport at the resort. He insists they go without him, checks into a seedy budget hotel downtown, drinks beer on the beach, starts an affair with beautiful local, Berenice (Iazua Larios) and fobs off his family with reasons why he can’t come home. It’s as if he’s reverted to his teenage years, but he knows that at some stage he’ll have to face the music.
It all sounds like a mid-life crisis, with the slouching Roth immune from anything coming close to emotion – his own or anybody else’s – but all is not necessarily what it seems. Yes, he was holidaying with his family, but not his wife and children: Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is his sister, and the kids are hers. Franco has played on our assumptions about the apparent family unit, but it’s a crucial detail that’s only revealed over half way into the film. And, although we knew from the outset that it was Alice’s mother who died, it’s only at this point we realise it’s Neil’s mother as well. Which makes his absence and detachment all the more perplexing and astonishing.
That’s not the only surprise in a film with a frustrating habit of pulling unexpected rabbits out of the proverbial hat. There’s never any hint of what’s to come. In itself that’s no bad thing, but the abruptness with which the twists are thrown into the mix are frustrating to the point of irritation, smacking of a certain arrogance on the part of the director. Even if he’s playing with our assumptions – and there’s little doubt that he is – he isn’t exactly playing fair and that, coupled with the almost soporific tone of the piece, is alienating. It also means that, when we’re let in on the reason behind Neil’s behaviour, we feel next to nothing for him either.
Roth previously worked with Franco on his 2016 English language debut, Chronic, a much more satisfying piece about a palliative care worker and an equally better showcase for the actor’s talents. While he’s convincing as a man who is strangely numb to everything going on around him, it’s a restricting role which gives him nowhere to go. Like those fish he watches at the start, he can’t breathe.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Toronto International Film Festival, 13 and 17 September 2021|Dir. Michel Franco | Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iazua Larios, Samuel Bottomley, Albertine Kotting McMillan