BFI LFF 2021

Sundown review – nihilistic character study neither provokes nor excites

Tim Roth shines in Michel Franco's portrait of a sociopath, but the film around him drifts listlessly, feeling way longer than 80 minutes

Brutal nihilism is a bold but risky vein for any filmmaker to mine – one that worked out for Michel Franco’s last film, New Order, but is used again to diminishing returns in his latest, Sundown. A shaggy dog story of a wealthy British man trying to permanently extend his Mexican holiday despite any and all obstacles, its bleak meanderings start out blackly funny but quickly wear thin, making its brief runtime – barely passing 80 minutes – feel like much, much longer.

The man in question is Neil (Tim Roth), who we first meet at a luxury resort in Acapulco, holidaying with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her older teen kids. Everything is idyllic, from the beautiful views to the glimmer of the private swimming pool just outside their suite, but this peace is shattered by a phone call Alice receives, informing her that her and Neil’s mum has just died. Alice and the kids are visibly shattered by the news, but Neil receives it with an eerie calm, before lying at the airport that he’s forgotten his passport, deliberately missing the flight home to the UK.

From here, he spins stories of further losses and troubles at the consulate to placate Alice over the phone while he moves to a cheaper Acapulco hotel and starts up a fling with local store owner Bernice (Iazua Larios). At first, Franco earns some healthy laughs, and Roth is on good form as the perpetually drunk Neil, but the endless days of lying to Alice before heading to the Mexican beach get repetitive fast – even a gangland execution by the sea and a prison stint pass by without much urgency. Later plot moves pile on the darkness, but you never really feel anything. It’s an effective way to get into the headspace of Neil, who seems to become more and more sociopathic as the film goes on, but an ineffective way to hold your attention.

A late-in-the-day twist also seems to undo a lot of the psychological groundwork that Franco has been laying down, lending an air of pointlessness to the whole exercise. There are hints that Franco wants to explore something deeper – a recurring image of two masked and heavily armed military police strolling by in the background is striking, and later conversations reveal that Neil and Alice’s money comes from slaughterhouses – but he doesn't go far enough to inspire you to care.

Franco previously worked with Roth on the similarly opaque Chronic, but that film had a beating heart to it that this one completely lacks. Despite the scorchingly luxurious scenery, Sundown is ice-cold, an empty provocation that neither raises your hackles or asks difficult questions, instead just lazily washing over you like the tide over the Acapulco sands.

Sundown was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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