In Roberto Bolaño’s 1997 short story Last Evenings on Earth, the narrator – a cipher for the acclaimed Chilean author himself – travels with his father to Acapulco. It is a road tale of sorts, set amidst “the days of grace”, Bolaño writes: a hazy melange of roadside diners, seafood platters, and tequila shots enjoyed poolside in the Mexican beach town.
And yet there’s a thin film of grime muddying the proceedings. From within the trappings of vacation, something sinister emerges – a barely concealed paranoia embedded into each of the narrator’s twitchy observations which, by the story’s end, has manifested itself in real-life horror.
More than two decades on, Sundown – the latest feature from Mexican director Michel Franco (New Order) – feels like the spiritual successor to Bolaño’s saga of sunlight and suspicion.
It, too, is set in Acapulco, where we meet an ultra-wealthy British family whiling away their summer, yachting and feasting and napping.
They are adult siblings Neil (Tim Roth) and Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with Alice’s teenage children in tow (Albertine Kotting McMillan and Samuel Bottomley).
Beyond their resort, there is not a blip on the horizon, the sunset so pastel and formless it might as well be painted.
There is quiet. Barely a word passes their lips as they lie, shaded and motionless, in between margaritas and massages delivered by local staff – the invisible foot soldiers lubricating the Bennetts’ picture-perfect sojourn.
Suddenly, a cataclysm: a phone call ruptures the idyll. Alice’s mother has died unexpectedly, and her noodly nonchalance de ella snaps taut as she marshalls the family, through tears, to the airport for a last-minute flight back to the UK.
Amidst the chaos, it’s easy to forget that the deceased is, in fact, Neil’s mother too – so unmoved is he.
At the check-in desk, he half-heartedly fumbles through what is clearly a lie: “I don’t have my passport,” he stammers, all but forcing the others to carry on without him. “I left it at the hotel.”
It is easy to imagine Sundown, here, becoming a satire of the super-rich – the sort favored lately by HBO series The White Lotus, or this year’s Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness, where moneyed, egocentric holidayers expose their ugly disconnection from, well, everyone else.
Franco, though, opts for a more distant approach, his camera as affectless as its subject. Neil traipses out of the airport and straight into a taxi, where he asks for a hotel – any hotel.
Before long, his strategy becomes clear: having successfully sloughed off his filial duties, he embarks on his own bachelor’s getaway. Bliss might be little more than an illusion, but it’s one he intends to reside in permanently.
He lets his sister’s increasingly aggrieved voicemails play out, then throws his phone in a drawer like a dirty secret. Meanwhile, he’s living la vida bloke-a, sinking beer after beer at the beach meters away from his new digs: a seedy room in a tourist trap, a far cry from the gleaming luxuries of earlier.
Roth, of course, is typically game, leaning into the wry absurdity of it all. He has no shortage of slimeballs to his credit – from his wily undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs to the self-obsessed screenwriter in 2021’s Bergman Island. His previous collaboration with Franco, 2015’s Chronic, saw him play an ethically ambiguous nurse fueling an elderly patient’s pornography addiction.
Neil, however, might be his trickiest role to date: a free radical operating under the logic of total chaos, with zero attachment to anything – or anyone – around him.
It’s best summed up by the film’s original title, Driftwood. Roth doesn’t so much walk as he floats across the frame, buoyed by little more than inertia. He betrays precious little, remaining expressionless for the majority of Sundown’s duration, even in the face of lust or brutality.
A casual romance that Neil strikes up with a beachside vendor named Berenice (the enchanting Iazua Larios) momentarily punctures the blur of sand and sweat. So does a drive-by shooting on the shore – a nod to the gang violence looming behind Acapulco, so rampant that the city is known as Mexico’s murder capital – though Neil conjures up only cursory curiosity, gazing at the bloody body as if it were a portrait at an art gallery.
Indeed, these images slip away as quickly as they appear. Like Bolaño, Franco sublimates the extreme under a layer of calculated insouciance, such that everything resembles a half-remembered dream.
Class warfare, gentrification, and unbridled privilege are all within Franco’s aim, but it is a testament to his subtlety that he never exploits them for cheap sympathy, instead leaving them to ripple silently beneath the surface.
At times, Sundown can feel like a test of patience. The camera peers again and again into the wide blue yonder, the harsh glare of sunlight burning all that it touches.
Roth certainly gets ruddier as Neil’s glory days stretch on endlessly. How much of this impenetrable, insufferable character can we possibly stomach?
Franco, to this end, attempts a vague explanation for Neil’s actions (or lack thereof) towards the film’s conclusion. The pace picks up as we’re bundled into a speeding car, a jail cell, then a hospital room, glimpsing – for the first time – some context to Neil’s inherited wealth and its associated intrigue.
Yet it pales in comparison to the grotesque character study we have witnessed thus far.
Like an urgent phone call on a holiday, it rouses us from an anesthetized spell.
Perhaps it is because we have grown accustomed to the pleasantly slumbering rhythm of Sundown that this final act, adhering to more traditional narrative tensions, feels out of step.
We might even miss the blankly apathetic Neil, free of any motivation or inhibition.
“What the fuck is going on?” Alice shrieks at her unresponsive brother of her earlier in the film. “What are you doing?”
The beauty lies in the mystery – the supreme power of a character who raises only questions, and a filmmaker who provides scant solutions.