February 22, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michel Franco
Some language in Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico (in Acapulco and Mexico City), the dramatic film “Sundown” features a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: After a British heir to a business fortune goes on a family vacation in Mexico with his sister and her two adult children, he makes some choices that upset his family and have serious repercussions when tragedy strikes.
Culture Audience: “Sundown” will appeal primarily to people interested in a story that is intriguing and well-acted, but viewers have to be tolerant of the often-meandering way that the story is told.
“Sundown” is one of those movies where the protagonist’s intentions aren’t very clear until the last third of the film, but the movie’s ending is still open to interpretation. It’s a drama with uneven pacing, but the movie’s shocking moments and solid performances make up for the dull moments. “Sundown” is best appreciated by people who have patience and curiosity to find out how the movie is going to end.
Written and directed by Michel Franco, “Sundown” is his follow-up to 2021’s “New Order,” which also focused on a wealthy family in Mexico. That’s where the similarity ends between the two movies. “New Order” was a gruesomely violent film about a home invasion and street riots that affected a family living in Mexico City. “Sundown” has a much more leisurely pace, and it centers on a vacationing British family in Acapulco.
The family consists of Neil Bennett (played by Tim Roth), his sister Alice Bennett (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Alice’s children Colin Bennett (played by Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa Bennett (played by Albertine Kotting McMillan), who are all together at a luxury beachside resort. Colin is about 19 or 20 years old, while Alexa is about 18 or 19 years old. The father of Colin and Alexa is not seen or mentioned.
Based on conversations in the movie, the movie, Alice has been raising her kids as a single parent for quite some time, and the father is no longer in their lives. Neil is a bachelor with no children. He later tells a few people that he loves his niece and nephew as if they were his own children.
It’s revealed later in the movie that the Bennetts’ fortune comes from the family-owned meat-processing business. Alice is the hard-driving leader of the business. Technically, Neil co-leads company with Alice, but she’s the one who’s really making the decisions, and he goes along with whatever she decides. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in being in charge of the business. The siblings’ company titles aren’t mentioned in the movie. Neil and Alice inherited the company from their father, who is now deceased.
“Sundown” starts off with the Bennetts having a relaxing family vacation. They lounge by the resort swimming pool or at the nearby beach. They have meals together, including a dinner at restaurant/bar, where a young female singer (played by Ely Guerra), who’s performing, openly flirts with Colin. After her performance, she sits down at a nearby table and raises a glass to Colin, who reacts with some combination of amusement and embarrassment when his family members tease him about this flirtatious attention.
It isn’t long before things take a serious turn. Alice gets a phone call from the family attorney named Richard (played by Henry Goodman) that Alice’s mother is seriously ill and has been taken to a hospital. This family vacation then gets cut short, as Alice, Neil, Colin and Alexa rush to the airport to catch the next plane back to England. Neil is concerned, but as time goes on, it becomes obvious that he’s emotionally disconnected from this family drama.
It’s not said outright, but it’s implied that Neil and Alice have different mothers, because there are constant references to the mother in the hospital as being Alice’s mother. Neil’s mother appears to be deceased. When the four Bennetts get to the airport, Neil says he left his passport behind at the resort and he has to go back for it. He tells Alice, Colin and Alexa to go on without him and that he’ll catch up to them later.
Soon enough, it’s revealed that Neil lied about his passport. He had it with him the entire time. He checks into a somewhat run-down motel and hangs out by himself and with some of the working-class locals whom he meets on the beach. And when Alice calls and texts him updates, he keeps lying by telling her that the passport has gone missing and he’s still looking for it. She suggests that he go to the nearest consulate to get an emergency passport, but he keeps stalling about that too.
Why is Neil lying? Why does he want to stay in Mexico? Why does he appear to be hiding from his family? And does Alice eventually find out where he is? Most of those questions are answered in the movie, which has a long stretch showing what Neil does when he’s away from his family. He meets a woman about 20 to 25 years younger than he is named Berenice (played by Iazua Larios), who works at a gift shop, and they quickly become lovers. Much of “Sundown” has a meandering quality to it that shows how the relationship between Neil and Berenice develops.
But an underlying sense of menace becomes apparent in a scene where Neil and Berenice are relaxing at a crowded public beach, when a speedboat with two men suddenly drives up from the ocean, and one of the men gets out and cold-bloodedly shoots a middle-aged man on the beach and kills him. The two men then flee on the speedboat before they can be caught. It’s an obvious planned execution. As many people on the beach either run away or react with horror, Neil and Berenice calmly look at the bloody, dead body and say nothing.
It’s an indication of how desensitized or numb they are to seeing this type of shocking death. Franco’s movies often make reference to the criminal violence in Mexico that disrupts what seem to be tranquil environments of the wealthy and elite who think they’re above any of this violence. Berenice might be accustomed to seeing or hearing about tourist areas in Mexico getting these violent attacks, but why does Neil seem so emotionally detached from witnessing this death? The answer becomes clearer toward the end of the movie.
Roth gives an intriguing performance as the mysterious Neil, whose character is the lynchpin that holds this entire story together. Neil’s reactions and what happens to him are what make “Sundown” the most interesting. The other cast members’ performances get the job done just fine. Neil’s journey in “Sundown” might be perplexing, but it’s never predictable.
Bleecker Street released “Sundown” in select U.S. cinemas on January 28, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 17, 2022.