Movie Review: Sundown (2021)

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In writer-director Michael Franco's "Sundown," Tim Roth plays a man named Neil who, in the sundown of his life, wants to bask in the warmth of that sun for as long as he can before it goes down for good. Knowing that with this comfort comes great risk, regardless of how bright the rays get, for most of the film's running time, Neil remains just as frustratingly resigned as he is fascinatingly opaque.

An existential cross between Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Updike's “Rabbit, Run,” and Camus' “The Stranger,” yet missing what makes all three great by foolishly giving us a justification for our main character's behavior, in “Sundown,” Neil abandons his family on a Mexican vacation and never returns.

Having traveled to the sandy beaches of Acapulco from London along with three loved ones (brought to life by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Albertine Kotting McMillan, and Samuel Bottomley), when Gainsbourg receives word that a family member back home has died, Roth goes through the supportive motions of packing everyone up and heading to the airport. 

Once there, he tells them he's left his passport behind and as soon as he finds it, he'll be on the very next flight. So convinced of his love and caught up in her own grief that she misses the hollowness of his words and the way that it sounds like a very different kind of farewell, Gainsbourg departs and takes the two teens with her. Venturing back to the hotel, not to look for the passport but head for the beach instead, Neil blows off all follow-up calls with false promises for as long as he can while he parks himself on the nearest lawn chair.

Seeing it all unfold, between Roth's standoffishness, as well as the film's long takes, and frames that only go in for close-ups when it counts, Franco toys with questions of accountability and voyeurism. With no one to follow but the aloof, largely nonvocal Neil throughout “Sundown,” we begin to feel not only unnervingly complicit but perhaps, far more invested in the aftermath of Neil's actions than he is.

Finding a girlfriend almost immediately to share in the fun of Acapulco sex and sun, Neil's ability to let everything roll off of his back – including gunfire and death – makes us immediately reject the idea that all he's having is a late midlife crisis. Wading into territory far beyond the lyrics of “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. I went out for a ride and I never went back. Like a river that don't know where it's flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going,” which Bruce Springsteen sang in “Hungry Heart,” “Sundown” gives us a man whom we feel is "losing" more than he is "lost."

So when a second, shocking death occurs that, although not directly Neil's fault, is nonetheless the direct result of his having decided to stay in Mexico, we begin to wonder what "Sundown" is telling us about karma, fate, free will, or predestination after all. Is Neil simply a man who like Bartleby has had enough of the rat race or “would prefer not to?" Or is he doing what he's doing to try – as in either a mid-twentieth-century French existential novel or a '90s Michael Haneke movie – to feel something, even if it's cruel? And though honestly, I wish we didn't know the answer, nor had "Sundown" even begin to flirt with the idea that there is one overall, unfortunately, Michel Franco decides to give us a reason for Neil's raison d'ĂȘtre that's as prosaic as it is clumsily handled.

Vague by necessity, regrettably, that's about as much as I can tell you about the film without going even deeper into spoiler territory. Proof that the best part of any movie is the conversation you have about it afterward, although, for at least half of its 83-minute length, I was completely caught up in Roth's performance as well as its boldly inscrutable spell, my biggest takeaway from “Sundown” is how close it came to greatness before it all fell apart. (And perhaps it isn't a spoiler to say that the film continued on for one twist more than it needed.)

Handled better, of course, it's perfectly fine to give viewers clues as to why a complex character behaves the way that they do. In another sun-drenched tale of bad behavior on holiday in the form of writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal's remarkable 2021 Netflix release “The Lost Daughter," this approach of psychologically character-driven storytelling strengthened her narrative overall. Yet what's missing from Franco's “Sundown,” is the intimacy that we experienced in "The Lost Daughter," based upon the novel by Elena Ferrante. Whereas Gyllenhaal's film felt more like reading someone's diary aloud to them as they watched, "Sundown" feels in contrast to sitting and waiting for a Polaroid picture to start to develop and being a bit dismayed by the result. 

Not wanting to spend any real time on Neil's interior life, Franco's “Sundown” keeps us at an arm's length for most of the film, just preferring to let things happen naturally, as observed on Roth's pensive poker or Buster Keaton-like stone face to the point that even a random spray of gunfire on a crowded beach fails to rouse him from his stasis. Yet as unflappable as Neil appears to be in front of the camera, behind it, in contrast, Franco eventually gives in to the pressures of storytelling convention. And though he hopes to be somewhat subtle, this too-late attempt to let us behind Neil's curtain comes off as manipulative, unearned, and disingenuous. Needing either more complexity or more opacity to make us feel like we're staring at the sun alongside our maddening lead, when Franco finally gives us sunglasses to sharpen our view, the film goes from blue sky success to chaotic storm.

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