When Sundown cuts to black, a lot of viewers are going to ask themselves, “Wait, is that all there is?” They will have a very valid reason to ask that. I asked it myself. The good news is that, if you think about it for a few minutes, the pieces begin to click into place. Directed by Michel Franco (New Order), the film is a mystery. Not a mystery in genre, but a mystery in and of itself. And once you've made everything fit together, the mystery is rewarding.
The story opens at a posh resort in Mexico. Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) is vacationing there with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two college-age children. We don't know much about these people at first, although they are clearly wealthy. Word comes that Neil and Alice's mother has died. Everyone cuts the trip short and heads to the airport. Once there, Neil says he left his passport back at the hotel, so he'll have to catch the next flight.
That isn't what he does. Instead, he checks into a different hotel and continues his vacation, drinking on the beach and starting up a fling with a local. Why does he do this? Well, that's where the mystery comes in. Sundown lets us observe Neil, who seems completely unphased by his mother's death, his betrayal of his sister, or even a major crime he sees occur right in front of him.
There are two reasons why the picture works. The first, and biggest, is Tim Roth. Always an interesting actor, he manages to make Neil an outwardly detached guy, while simultaneously suggesting that something is going on inside to explain this strange behavior. The actor portrays Neil's ambivalence in a way that makes us want to keep watching him, even though what he's doing appears callous on the surface. Rarely has a lack of visible emotion been this riveting onscreen. The other key factor is Franco's methodic doling out of clues. It takes a good 30-40 minutes before we get so much as a morsel of information. Once we do, trying to figure out how each new revelation fits with the previous one is intellectually engaging.
In a way, Sundown is a movie grenade. Franco pulls the pin and throws it at us, but it doesn't go off until the end. That very last shot is where everything suddenly converges, giving us a total picture of what's going on with Neil and why he has made the choices that confounded us. Even better, real substance lies in the conclusion. What the film does has technically been done before; it just hasn't been done like this. Once you know the character's true motivation, the manner in which you view this man abruptly shifts.
Sundown will not be for everyone. It's a picture that requires patience. If you're willing to go with the flow, this well-crafted, magnificently-acted, and ultimately philosophical work will strike a nerve.
out of four
Sundown is rated R for sexual content, violence, language and some graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.