In Sundown, Mexican director Michel Franco (Chronic and New Order) casts Tim Roth as a wealthy man adrift in Acapulco. Franco doesn't so much tell a story as create a mood dominated by the withdrawal of Roth's character from nearly all forms of engagement.
The movie opens with Roth's Neil vacationing with a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) we take to be his wife. They're accompanied by two grown children (Albertine Kotting McMillan and Samuel Bottomley). Their kids?
The feeling is one of languor. Everyone eats and drinks. Neil floats in the pool at a posh hotel. Movement seems difficult, unnecessary — even superfluous.
Initially, we think that Roth and Gainsbourg are playing husband and wife, an impression Franco slowly overturns. Gainsbourg's Alice, we eventually learn, is Neil's sister. McMillan and Bottomley are playing his niece and nephew.
The ease of a Mexican respite is shattered when Gainsbourg's Alice receives a phone call. Her mother has been rushed to the hospital. Alice orders everyone into emergency mode. They must pack for a quick return to London.
At the airport, Neil says that he's left his passport at the hotel and must return to retrieve it. He'll catch another flight. We suspect that he's lying. We're not wrong.
Neil ignores what turns out to be a death in the family. He remains in Acapulco, checking into a downscale hotel, drinking copious amounts of beer, and beginning a sexual relationship with Berenice (Iazua Larios), a local woman who becomes involved with him.
But Franco has more in mind than sexual adventure. Violence occasionally erupts, notably when a man is shot on the beach a few feet from where Neil has parked his listless body. Another violent eruption will spring up later, this one involving someone closer to Neil.
Fearing that her brother has gone off the deep end, Alice returns to Mexico, chastising him for failing to attend his mother's funeral and begging him to return to London. Both of them are heirs to a meat-slaughtering business that demands attention.
To underscore the seriousness of the situation, Alice's visit is preceded by entreaties from the family's attorney (Henry Goodman). Neil shrugs it off. He doesn’t want the family money. He couldn’t care less about the business.
It's not easy to make a movie about a man who has deadened himself to life, so much so that he doesn't seem fazed when he finds himself at the center of a lurid British tabloid story or slumped in a corner in a Mexican jail.
Obviously, Neil harbors a secret that Franco withholds until the movie's end.
Roth's convincingly dispassionate portrayal doesn't encourage much by way of empathy. Franco purposefully keeps us outside of Neil’s experience. We're watching a man who has given up on just about everything.
Yet, the movie has an insinuating lilt. Mexico’s mixture of heat, surf, violence, subsistence, street encounters, and the mismatched wealth of European vacationers leaves us wondering (in a good way) what Franco is trying to say about the value of Neil's life.
Neil ventures away from the private beaches of privilege but he’s not looking for renewal. It's an odd achievement, but Roth has created a character who's willfully useless, a decaying relic of man from a world that Franco may view as doomed.
Or maybe Neil's just a guy who has waited all his life for a reason not to pretend that he gives a damn.