Neil Bennett is bored – bored of his holiday, bored of his family, bored of just about everything. Played by Tim Roth, he’s a man who shrugs off just about anything that comes his way. His indifference is often infuriatingly tragic – the placable man holds no passion or joy, even during an expensive family trip to an upmarket Mexican resort.
Sundown opens with Neil holidaying with his sister and her two children. Neil is seen floating in the pool as his family buzz around him. A metaphor for his life perhaps – adrift, with little direction. The tragedy of his situation becomes more evident when news arrives of his mother’s death. His sister Alice, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is clearly beside herself, screaming out in fevered anguish. Neil merely shrugs once again.
Director Michel Franco walks a fine line between tragedy and comedy. In truth, it could be either, but the darkly humorous reactions of Neil to his increasingly tragic surroundings is almost a joke in itself. Tim Roth swaggers his way through every scene – a long-running trademark for the 60-year-old actor. But this time around, there’s an added sensitivity to his performance. Subtle nods give the game away – a pensive glance, the occasional head tilt. It’s clear that something is wrong. The sociopathic ambivalence Neil exhibits in the face of trauma is laughable. But it hides a truth that Neil is clearly running from.
Expected to return home to tend to his mother’s funeral, Neil instead decides to just… not do that. Faking a lost passport at the airport (and at the very last minute) he hatches a plan to escape the shackles of his former life. What unfolds is a darkly comic tragedy – Sundown shows us the consequence of his actions. No sooner than he has bundled his family through the departure gate, Neil dives into a cab and asks to be taken to a hotel. Any hotel – it really doesn’t matter. This is Neil’s chance at a new life and his ambivalence even stretches to his own life choices.
Eventually holed up in the run-down Hotel Camelinas in downtown Acapulco, Neil avoids phone calls from his family, deletes frenzied voicemails from his sister, and essentially runs away from his responsibilities. When Alice finally returns, she finds him sipping beer on the beach – not a care in the world. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” she asks. And that’s the big question. Roth’s performance has you questioning Neil’s sanity throughout – just what is going through his head? What is wrong with him? A wry half-smile and dejected pose as Neil drags his sandals across the beach gives us further hints that something is amiss. But these clues are hidden beneath a weirdly calm and collected manner.
Soon enough, we find out that Neil and his sister are heirs to the family fortune – a billion-pound empire built on the back of a meat-packing business. The Bennetts are filthy, stinking rich, but when talk of his inheritance turns sour, Neil calmly explains that he isn’t interested in money. He’s happy to live out his days in Acapulco, leaving the entire family wealth to his sister in exchange for a modest-by-their-standards monthly allowance. Essentially, all Neil wants is his freedom – the chance to relax and just be. And despite the wrath of his rage-filled sister, it seems he’s found it. His new life, enjoying sun sea and sand with his new girlfriend Berenice, played by Iazua Larios seems just about perfect.
What could possibly go wrong?
Sundown is a strangely brilliant film which walks a weird line between the absurd and the mundane. Neil is often thrown into ridiculous situations – at one point witnessing a violent gang execution on the idyllic beach where he spends his days. But the brutal, bloody mess is met with little more than a glance. Tim Roth plays a blinder as the possibly sociopathic Neil, with a subtlety that conveys far more than you might expect. Equally, Michel Franco builds an intense character study that pierces Neil’s ambivalence to reveal the real tragedy inside.
Intensely brilliant and weirdly sublime, Sundown gives you a lot more to chew on than you might think. An existential crisis for a man who at first glance seems to barely exist at all.