Director: Michel Franco (France, Mexico, Sweden). Year of Release: 2022
A posh hotel in Acapulco. Neil and Alice are there with two kids, doing the things that families normally do on holiday – eating fish and steaks to live musical accompaniment, watching divers jump off vertiginously high rocks, playing dominos (really?). A couple of chance remarks make you think that the kids aren’t Neil’s – which, it turns out, they’re not, though not for the reasons that you first suspect.
Suddenly, the idyll is shattered. Alice gets a phone call from home telling her that her mother is seriously ill. A second call follows, confirming mum’s death. The family pack up their stuff as quickly as possible and make for the airport. As they are about to board the next flight, Neil announces that he’s left his passport at the hotel. Alice offers to stay and wait, but Neil and the kids usher her onto the plane, and he promises to get the next possible flight.
Neil jumps into a taxi and asks it to take him to a hotel, any hotel. He checks in somewhere much less salubrious than the place they’ve been staying. As distressed phone calls arrive from Alice, he first tells her that the passport’s missing and he has to go to the consulate, which it’s closed for the week-end. After a while, he stops answering the phone, and hides it in a drawer so that the permanent ringing doesn’t disturb him.
Neil just carries on with his holiday, chatting with the dodgy characters who pester him on the beach, sunbathing, drinking, and picking up Berenice, the woman who works in the shop where he buys bottles of beer. Neil and Berenice spend the subsequent time sleeping with each other or sitting hand in hand in deckchairs. Then Alice returns and asks the question that’s been on everybody’s lips: “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
As life explodes around him, Neil remains numb. A man is murdered just down the beach from where he is sitting, he returns his hotel to find that all his stuff has been stolen, Alice sends their lawyer over to talk about mum’s inheritance. Neil says he doesn’t want any of it, well only the monthly stipend that Alice offers. He doesn’t attempt to explain why he’s been behaving like a bit of a dick.
Sundown has more than a little of Albert Camus’s L’Ètranger to it. That was a story of a man who was punished because his reaction to his mother’s death was not socially acceptable. I would add a qualification to this comparison. L’Étranger is one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth Century. In comparison, Sundown is a short story, a diverting tale which has none of the depth found in Camus’s book.
Sundown is at is strongest when it doesn’t try to explain why Neil is behaving the way he does. Maybe he’s sociopathic, maybe – like Camus’s Mersault – he doesn’t believe that he needs society’s permission to react in any way he chooses. Towards the end, the film tries to provide an explanation for his behaviour, and I feel that it’s all the weaker for this. It’s much more satisfying to watch Tim Roth as Neil defying social conventions and carrying on enjoying his life.
Some reviews see Sundown as a searing analysis of class, but I don’t think it is, not really. Sure, Neil is able to get away with behaving as he does because he has money, even after he refuses to accept most of the inheritance. He is a slaughterhouse heir (and, towards the end, starts having visions of butchered pigs which I guess is supposed to be of deep metaphorical value, but doesn’t really work for me).
Or if Sundown is about class, it’s only in a negative sense. The story is only possible because Neil doesn’t have to go out and work or anything. But the film is neither lauding Neil nor criticizing him particularly. His wealth is just a plot device which allows various scenes to happen – it isn’t seen as anything good or bad in itself. Neil is unlikeable (but is he, really? He’s played by that nice Tim Roth) primarily because he’s a dick, not because he’s a dick with money.
I think that the film is better watched without attaching to it too much political importance. Better to just watch Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg do their thing. Viewed on this level it’s diverting, entertaining enough, but fairly insubstantial, nothing to make too much fuss about. Which is fine. Sometimes we need films just like that.