A family is on a deluxe holiday in an elite Mexico hotel. They enjoy massages, swimming in the infinity edged pool and drinking a lot, starting with breakfast margaritas. But then a phone call with tragic news cuts short their stay and calls them home. However, once at the airport Neil (Tim Roth) discovers he has not packed his passport and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) must take her two teenage children on alone with the promise that Neil won’t be far behind.
That’s all the synopsis that you’re going to get to Michel Franco’s new film. Previously he has created cinema that has been stunning in its intense misanthropy and ability to tease the worst out of human beings and Mexican society at large, like some sun-kissed Michael Haneke. Tim Roth had previously collaborated with him on Chronic, his first English language film in which Roth plays a palliative care nurse whose own life is unraveling. At the time, it didn’t really break through and the move back to Mexico for last year’s New Order felt like a return to form, and probably represented his best film yet. A horrifying portrait of a populist and indigenous revolution taking brutal revenge on the white ruling class before itself being co-opted by a fascist regime.
Sundown is like a brilliant b-side. At 85 minutes, it is the bitterest of pills, a sharp shot of misery, but it is always riveting and boasts reliably fantastic performances, especially from a slouching and enigmatic Tim Roth. There is an element of steady surprise to the story, with twists and turns that make utter sense and give a masterclass in the slow reveal. Even at the end there are questions to be asked: most importantly is any explanation going to be as interesting as the mystery?
The Mexican tourist board will not be helping to fund any future Michel Franco films. The country is divided between the impossible wealth and luxury of the first resort and a grimy hotel and resort where the bottles of beer come in bucketfuls and the beaches are patrolled by soldiers with machine guns. New Order already had accusations of racism to answer, and Sundown does very little to reverse the impression that Franco’s worldview is white people are terrible and brown people are worse. A local shop worker Berenice (Iazua Larios) is one of the few non-white characters to get something like a sizeable role. And yet she too seems to be something of a cypher, as well as someone we can’t entirely trust.
Technically, Franco is a hugely accomplished filmmaker. Sundown is as lean as a stab wound and shot by Belgian DP Yves Cape with cool authority. There is no non-diegetic music, but the lack of this indicator of emotion only shows how effective Franco is at manipulating his audience with different methods. As the film continues to its surprise/inevitable conclusion, the sound of someone hedging their bets could be heard in the distance. One twist too many felt like a fall into melodrama (without the melo, naturally), and constituted a loss of nerve as sympathy/nobility were grasped from the abattoir.
Sundown premiered at the 78th Venice Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It shows at the BFI London Film Festival in October.