In Roberto Bolaño’s 1997 short story Last Evenings on Earth, the narrator—a figure for the acclaimed Chilean author himself—travels with his father to Acapulco. It’s sort of a road tale, in the midst of “the days of grace,” writes Bolaño: a hazy mishmash of roadside diners, seafood platters and tequila shots poolside in the Mexican beach town.
And yet there is a thin film of dirt that obscures the procedure. From the trappings of vacation, something sinister emerges—a barely hidden paranoia embedded in each of the narrator’s jittery observations that manifested itself in real horror by the end of the story.
More than two decades later, Sundown – the latest feature from Mexican director Michel Franco (New Order) – feels like the spiritual sequel to Bolaño’s saga of sunlight and suspicion.
It also takes place in Acapulco, where we meet an ultra-wealthy British family who spend their summer sailing and partying and napping.
They are adult siblings Neil (Tim Roth) and Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with Alice’s teenage children (Albertine Kotting McMillan and Samuel Bottomley) in tow.
Outside their resort, there’s not a speck on the horizon, the sunset so pastel and shapeless it might as well have been painted.
Everything is quiet. Hardly a word passes their lips as they lie, in the shade and motionless, among margaritas and massages given by local staff—the invisible foot soldiers who dot the Bennetts’ beautiful abode.
Suddenly a disaster: a phone call breaks the idyll. Alice’s mother has passed away unexpectedly, and her frantic nonchalance explodes as she tears the family to the airport for a last-minute flight back to the UK.
In the midst of the chaos, it’s easy to forget that the deceased is, in fact, Neil’s mother – that’s how impassive he is.
At the check-in desk, he half-heartedly rummages through what is clearly a lie: “I don’t have my passport,” he stammers, nearly forcing the others to go on without him. “I left it at the hotel.”
It’s easy to imagine Sundown becoming a satire of the super rich here – the kind favored by HBO series lately The white lotusor this year’s Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness, where affluent, self-centered vacationers expose their ugly disconnect from, well, everyone else.
However, Franco opts for a more distant approach, his camera as numb as the subject. Neil stumbles out of the airport and arranges for a taxi, where he asks for a hotel – a hotel.
His strategy soon becomes clear: After successfully reneging on his childish duties, he embarks on his own bachelorette holiday. Bliss may not be much more than an illusion, but it is one he wants to reside in permanently.
He lets out his sister’s increasingly painful voicemails, then tosses his phone in a drawer like a dirty secret. Meanwhile, he lives la vida bloke-a, sinking beer after beer on the beach, meters away from his new digs: a seedy room in a tourist trap, a far cry from the gleaming luxury of yesteryear.
Roth, of course, is quintessentially a game, leaning into the wry absurdity of it all. He’s got no shortage of slime balls to his credit — from his scheming undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs to the self-obsessed screenwriter in Bergman Island in 2021. His previous collaboration with Franco, 2015’s Chronic, saw him play an ethically ambiguous nurse who manages the porn addiction of aroused an elderly patient.
However, Neil is arguably his toughest role yet: a free radical operating on the logic of utter chaos, with no attachment to anything — or anyone — around him.
It is best summed up by the movies original title, Driftwood† Roth doesn’t so much walk as he floats across the frame, buoyed by little more than inertia. He betrays but little and remains expressionless for most of Sundown’s duration, even in the face of lust or brutality.
A casual romance Neil enters into with a beach vendor named Berenice (the enchanting Iazua Larios) briefly breaks the haze of sand and sweat. So is a drive-by shooting on the coast—a nod to the gang violence looming behind Acapulco, so rampant that the city is known as The murder capital of Mexico – though Neil arouses only fleeting curiosity, staring at the bloodied body as if it were an art gallery portrait.
Indeed, these images disappear as quickly as they appear. Like Bolaño, Franco sublimates the extreme under a lowly calculated indifference, so that everything looks like a half-remembered dream.
Class struggle, gentrification, and unbridled privilege are all within Franco’s goal, but it’s a testament to his subtlety that he never exploits them for cheap sympathy, instead letting them quietly ripple beneath the surface.
Sometimes sunset can feel like a test of patience. The camera peers over and over into the wide blue yonder, the harsh glare of sunlight that burns everything it touches.
Roth certainly gets rosier as Neil’s glory days stretch out endlessly. How much of this impenetrable, insufferable character can we bear?
Franco attempts a vague explanation for Neil’s actions (or lack thereof) towards the film’s conclusion. The pace picks up as we are bundled into a speeding car, a prison cell, and then a hospital room, and get a first glimpse of Neil’s inherited wealth and its associated intrigue.
Still, it pales in comparison to the grotesque character study we’ve seen so far.
Like an urgent phone call on a holiday, it awakens us from a numb spell.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to Sundown’s pleasantly slumbering rhythm that this closing act, holding on to more traditional narrative tensions, is out of step.
We might even miss the blankly apathetic Neil, free of any motivation or inhibition.
“What the hell is going on?” Alice yells at her unresponsive brother earlier in the film. “What are you doing?”
The beauty lies in the mystery – the supreme power of a character who only raises questions, and a filmmaker who offers scarce solutions.
Sundown hits theaters on July 7.
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