A quietly menacing malaise laps against the shores of Acapulco, resting at the feet of the Bennett family in Sundown, a sun-kissed and unsettlingly serene anti-thriller from Mexican provoc-auteur Michel Franco.
Franco’s film opens with the Bennetts – Neil (Tim Roth), sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her two teenage kids – enjoying life in the lap of luxury at a hotel resort where the sun is always at their window and steaks are presented pre-cooking for the family’s optimal choosing. All is still, all is well, and under the tranquil lens of cinematographer Yves Cape, everything is quiet – too quiet, naturally. And then comes the sound of a ringing phone to breach the peace, and then soon after news of a death in the family that means the Bennetts’ utopian getaway is abruptly upended. Except, for Neil – who calmly deals with a lost passport at the airport by chivalrously offering to stay behind in Mexico – the holiday of a lifetime simply continues.
Unfussed and unphased seemingly by what would to most be Earth-shattering news, Neil shacks up at a budget hotel, finds himself a local girl to while away the hours drinking and having sex with, and when his sister’s increasingly fraught phonecalls and texts get too much he simply switches on airplane mode and continues to exist switched off from the complicating messiness of emotions or basic human expression. When a man is shot before his very eyes, he saunters off for a drink. When his sister turns up and gives him an almighty bollocking, he sits until she storms off. Whenever anything happens that isn’t in step with Neil’s insistence upon the simple life in fact, he simply glazes over and waits for the storm to pass so he can continue to soak up the sun’s rays.
It’s hard to describe the experience of watching Sundown, which is unfortunate given the nature of film criticism, but in its deliberately apathetic construction technically, narratively, and in the character of Neil Bennett, its elusion of any obvious meaning or cinematic meat to chew on very much is the point. Franco’s is a film which is far more interested in us as viewers it would seem than in anything contained within its 83 minutes of loosely guided fiction. To that end, it most strongly recalls something like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which contains an almost half an hour stretch – played out in real time – in which two characters who have been tortured try to leave their lodgings. The sequence is painfully slow and laborious, but its purpose is to make the viewer incredibly aware of their own sense of tedium. Do we want to watch the torture resume? What exactly do we expect to happen? And how are we to feel when we’re given (or not given) what we’ve come to expect? Of course, in Haneke’s film – and its American remake, which coincidentally starred Tim Roth – the viewer is given the violence they’re indirectly being criticised for craving. Here however, Franco ekes out that tension of expectation to feature length, denying any explosion of character or action whenever we may reasonably expect it just to see how we respond and whether we continue onwards with the show.
In the absence of any noted presence in terms of score, direction (in both senses), and largely even performances if truth be told, watching Sundown can feel at times like prying on the lives of others – we’re uninvited, and our presence parallel to events unfolding feels unexpected. And this extends to Tim Roth’s quite extraordinary, sociopathic lead performance as Neil. It hardly even merits being hailed a performance, such is the British actor’s nonchalance as he saunters from scene to scene, engaging minimally with the world and people around him. In its total lack of visible effort, Roth’s characterisation of Neil becomes fascinating to watch in a way that eschews the theatre of other cinematic depictions of psychopathy and sociopathy.
Neil is utterly empty as a man, and Franco makes minimal attempt to give us any semblance of a clue as to what made him this way – towards the film’s third act we certainly know more about his background, but of his conscience and constitution much is left to our own speculation and projection. It seems reductive to call Roth’s one of the laziest performances in recent memory because I can only imagine how much effort it takes to wilfully dismiss every impulse to act and evoke as an actor, but lazy best befits it nevertheless. The whole film could well be described as laboriously lazy, but that would be to undersell its inexplicably captivating qualities.
For some (arguably many) viewers, the disinterested affectation of Franco’s film will be a massive turn-off, and even for those invested the pedestrian pacing may leave you contemplating a siesta mid-viewing. However, if Franco’s hypnotic work successfully ensnares your senses, then settle in for something that will nestle in the mind and linger there long after the credits roll – you certainly won’t see anything quite like Sundown again for a long time.
Sundown is playing at BFI London Film Festival
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