Actor Tim Roth has more than 100 credits to his name, though it’s rare that this always reliable, terrifically talented performer leads a film as its primary protagonist. He’s carried his own TV series (“Lie to Me”) and starred in films for everyone from Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), Ava Duvernay (Selma) and Michael Haneke (Funny Games). But 2021 has been quite year for him. He’s one half of a compelling couple the impressive Bergman Island, and now, he’s the stirring center of Sundown, the story of a man who walks away from everything in his life with seemingly nothing waiting for him on the other side. Written and directed by Michel Franco (last year’s less-than-successful New Order), Sundown feels watching a glass of water filled to the brim, nothing but invisible surface tension keeping it from spilling everywhere and at risk of breaking at any moment.
Roth is Neil, a man who’s used to getting his way and currently enjoying a family holiday in Mexico with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her children, Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and Colin (Samuel Bottomley). Their idyllic peace is shattered when a call arrives that Neil and Alice’s mother has fallen gravely ill. Understandably, the family rushes to the airport to return in time to see their matriarch before it’s too late. But when they arrive, Neil realizes he’s without his passport and, though the rest of the family offers to wait there while he goes back to get it, he urges them to get on the plane without him. For a brief moment, we believe Neil really is going to head back, get his passport and get on the next flight home. But as he steps into a taxi and tells the driver to take him to a hotel…any hotel…it’s clear that he has other things in mind.
Before long, Neil has settled into a leisurely existence, spending his days drinking on the beach, soaking up the sun and ignoring Alice’s calls and texts. Is this a man running from his grief? Is he so damaged from the trauma that he can’t bring himself to engage with anything in the “real world”? Franco reveals just enough about Neil, Alice, their family and their wealth to give us hints here and there about where all of this is headed—though where it does go is probably far from what anyone might guess. It’s a measured, nuanced narrative, one that possesses much more finesse and subtlety than the filmmaker demonstrated in his previous film. And with Roth commanding the screen in nearly every scene, his detached nature and impermeable countenance keeping us at arm’s length throughout, the film takes on an eery, mysterious vibe.
Franco is clearly interested in exploring themes of class, power, secrets and justice, and placing the film in his native Mexico means he can incorporate a sense of place that feels natural and one he inherently understands. In New Order, those conversations were so heavy-handed and blunt that they fell completely flat. Here, the filmmaker has figured out how to keep an audience on its toes through characters who aren’t exactly what they seem and a narrative that never quite goes where you might expect it too. In fact, by the film’s third act, there is so much revealed and so much to surprise that its quiet undertones become something like a red herring belying what’s really a deeply troubling, thought-provoking story that will challenge viewers to keep up with it. Sun-drenched and surprisingly intense, Sundown is a well-crafted script driven by Roth’s impressive lead performance.
Sundown is now playing in theaters.
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