by Hope Madden
Usually, when you try to avoid giving any plot synopsis it’s because so much happens in a film that you don’t want to spoil any surprises.
That’s sort of why it’s nearly impossible to describe Michel Franco’s latest drama Sundown. And yet, it’s also kind of the opposite.
The film in its entirety is a sleight of hand. In a way, it’s as if you’re watching a dysfunctional family drama, then an international thriller, but always from the perspective of someone barely involved in what’s going on. The result is simultaneously frustrating and mesmerizing.
Tim Roth provides a slyly empathetic turn as Neil. He and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) plus two young adult kids are on a pricy vacation. Franco lingers for about 25 minutes on pools and vistas, private beaches and ridiculous accommodations. The dialog—what there is of it—amounts to background noise. The point is there’s love here, a bit of distance, and an absolutely insane amount of money.
Then a tragedy calls the family home, cutting short their holiday. From here the show belongs to Roth. Franco trusts the actor to carry the full weight of this character and this film with no exposition at all, next to no emotion and bursts of action withheld until the last half hour of the film.
Roth delivers. A blend of tenderness and resignation, he fascinates and the less he explains the more confoundingly intriguing he becomes. Neil is the mystery, his every action a surprise delivered in the lowest of keys.
Gainsbourg’s tumult of emotion offers a brash counterpoint, while Iazua Larios balances that drama with something raw and sometimes sweet.
It’s almost amazing how much happens in a film that feels so meandering and lethargic. Sundown defies expectations, but it’s all the better for it.