Review: ‘Sundown’ (2022), starring Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Iazua Larios

February 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Albertine Kotting McMillan and Tim Roth in “Sundown” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Sundown” (2022)

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.

Tim Roth and Iazua Larios in “Sundown” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“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.

Review: ‘New Order’ (2021), starring Naian González Norvind, Diego Boneta, Fernando Cuautle, Mónica Del Carmen, Eligio Melendez, Dario Yazbek Bernal and Lisa Owen

June 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Naian González Norvind and Fernando Cuautle in “New Order” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“New Order” (2021)

Directed by Michel Franco

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Mexico, the dramatic film “New Order” features an all-Latino cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A wedding celebration at a wealthy family’s estate is invaded by rioters protesting against the elites of society.

Culture Audience: “New Order” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about conflicts between social classes, but some of the brutal violence in the movie might be too much for some viewers to take.

Diego Boneta and Fernando Cuautle in “New Order” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“New Order” raises provocative questions in this raw and disturbing depiction of clashes between the “haves” and the “have nots.” One of the biggest questions has to do with blurred lines of morality when people who think they are oppressed become the oppressors. And the movie brings forth the ongoing debate over social protests, when some people think violence isn’t the answer, while others have a “by any means necessary” set of beliefs.

Written and directed by Michel Franco, “New Order” is also a blistering commentary on political violence in Mexico, although the movie’s themes can apply to any country that has been divided over official or unofficial civil wars. The movie is told mainly from the point of view of the well-to-do protagonists who start off thinking that they’re going to an elegant wedding but end up experiencing horrors beyond their worst nightmares.

Much of the first half of the movie takes place on a wealthy family’s estate, where the wedding is scheduled for that day. Outside the estate, there are hints that angry protests have caused a lot of upheaval in the surrounding area. Roads have been blocked off by police. And the protesters have been splattering green paint on people and property.

What they are protesting is never explicitly stated, but it doesn’t really have to be, because it’s clear that it’s an uprising against a society that the protestors think needs to be radically dismantled. Meanwhile, the people at the mansion are doing their best to ignore what’s happening around them because they think whatever is happening outside in the streets doesn’t really apply to them.

Franco’s message in “New Order” isn’t exactly subtle. It seems like he made this movie to say that it isn’t just wealthy people who have a sense of complacency, but it could be anyone who wants to ignore the reasons behind civil unrest. Letting this discontent fester without properly addressing it can have disastrous and tragic results.

The first half of the movie takes viewers into the world of the bride’s upper-crust family who is hosting the wedding. These scenes give a sense of how privileged and fortunate the family and their guests seemed to be before the chaos of the street protests changed their lives forever. The family members and the wedding guests have lulled themselves into a sense of security. It’s not necessarily pure arrogance in thinking that they’re “untouchable,” but it’s more out of ignorance of not knowing or not being able to relate to what’s making the protestors so filled with rage.

The movie’s main protagonist is Marianne Novello (played by Naian González Norvind), the 25-year-old bride-to-be, who is in a blissful romance with her handsome architect fiancé Alan (played by Dario Yazbek Bernal), who has an easygoing personality. They are so happy and in love that they can barely keep their hands off of each other at a pre-wedding party, hours before they are scheduled to exchange marriage vows. Alan is very supportive of Marianne and sees her as an equal partner.

Also at the wedding are:

  • Marianne’s older brother Daniel (played by Diego Boneta), who is a somehat cocky architect colleague of Alan’s.
  • Daniel’s pregnant wife Blanca (played by Ximena García), who is more introverted than Daniel.
  • Alan’s mother Pilar (played by Patricia Bernal), who is happy about his upcoming marriage.
  • Marianne and Daniel’s parents Ivan (played by Roberto Medina) and Rebecca (played by Lisa Owen), who also approve of the marriage.

The Novelo family has several servants, but the ones who get the most screen time are housekeeper Marta (played by Mónica Del Carmen) and her son Cristian (played by Fernando Cuautle), who’s a driver and occasional handyman. There are some security personnel at the wedding too. But viewers will eventually see that these security staffers will be outnumbered and not all of the Novelo family employees are loyal.

As the party guests celebrate inside the gated walls of the estate, there are signs that the effects of the street protests have been seeping into the festive atmosphere. When Rebecca goes into a bathroom and turns on a faucet, she sees that the water has turned green. It’s the same green shade of the paint being used by the protesters. An alarmed Rebecca tells Ivan about this strange and possibly dangerous alteration to their plumbing.

But when they both go in the bathroom to test the water faucet, the water has gone back to normal. Meanwhile, some of the guests arriving have splotches of the green paint on their cars, while a few of the guests have the paint on their clothing and faces, as if they couldn’t avoid getting splattered with the paint. There’s also talk at the party about how hard it was to drive from the airport to the wedding site because of all the police and protesters in the streets.

Before the home invasion, members of the Novelo family are faced with a decision on whether or not to help a former employee. An elderly man named Rolando (played by Eligio Meléndez) shows up at the front gate of the mansion, just a few hours before Marianne is supposed to be getting prepared for the wedding ceremony. Rolando, who hasn’t worked for the Novelo family in eight years, has not been invited to the ceremony, but he’s there to make a desperate request.

Rolando asks to see Rebecca and tells her that his wife Elise needs emergency surgery for a heart valve replacement. Because the protestors have raided the hospitals, Rolando had to take Elise to a private clinic. And the medical expenses will cost 200,000 pesos. With an embarrassed tone of voice, Rolando says that doesn’t have a credit card, so he asks Rebecca to lend him the money.

Rebecca is polite but somewhat dismissive when she tells Rolando that it’s bad timing for him to ask her for money. She tells him to come back the next day. But when Rebecca sees the expression of despair on Rolando’s face, she changes her mind and tells him that she can only give him 35,000 pesos in cash that day and that he can come back for the rest later.

Meanwhile, Daniel and Marianne both find out that Rolando has shown up to ask to borrow money for his wife’s heart surgery. Rolando and his wife Elise were beloved employees who left the employment of the Novelo family on good terms. However, Rolando’s sudden and unannounced appearance at the Novelo family home is awkward because he didn’t keep in touch, and the family hasn’t seen him in several years.

Daniel and Marianne have very different reactions to Rolando’s request to borrow the money. Daniel gets irritated and thinks that Rolando is being too much of a distraction. He goes outside to the gate, gives Rolando the rest of the money, and angrily tells Rolando never to come back. Rolando is grateful but also seems ashamed about alienating Daniel.

Marianne doesn’t know that Daniel had this interaction with Rolando, so she decides she’s going to give Rolando the cash that he needs. When she finds out that Rolando has left the property, she impulsively asks Cristian to go with her by car to Rolando’s home address, which isn’t too far away, so that she can give Rolando the cash herself. Although some viewers might think it’s far-fetched that someone would go to this type of trouble on that person’s wedding day, there are a lot stranger things that have happened in real life.

It can be assumed that Marianne is a very kind-hearted and generous person, so it’s not hard to believe that someone with this type of personality would make this decision. Marianne’s biggest lapse in judgment is not being aware or underestimating how bad the violence was out on the streets. She and Cristian are about to find out the hard way.

Marianne’s decision to leave the mansion just a few hours before her wedding causes some panic with her loved ones. But they don’t think it’s a good idea for any of them to go out and try to find her. They hope she’ll come back in time for the wedding. But then, all hell breaks loose and there’s a massive home invasion.

The rest of “New Order” takes a very dark turn with mayhem that includes kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, torture and murder. Some of the violence is gratuitous when it focuses a little too long on random characters who are never seen in the movie again. And viewers might be divided over a plot development involving ransom money, bounty hunters and how the government handles the chaos.

As believable as the acting is in the movie, one of the flaws of “New Order” is that not enough time is given to get to know any of the characters and their backstories. Marianne seems like a nice person, but her fateful decision to help Rolando and her determination to make it happen (she won’t give up when she and Cristian encounter obstacles on the road) are about all that viewers see of what type of personality she has.

Despite the unrelenting grimness in the last half of the movie, “New Order” isn’t really a rallying cry for one side or the other. It’s more like a wake-up call or a warning. It’s as if writer/director Franco, with all of the movie’s in-your-face and unsettling violence, seems to be saying, “If you think this can’t happen to you, think again.” As troubling as it is to see all the horrific crimes against humanity that are depicted in the movie, it’s a somber reminder that these acts are not an exaggeration of ongoing atrocities and there are worse things in real life that weren’t in this movie.

Neon released “New Order” in select U.S. cinemas on May 21, 2021.

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