Roth mesmerizes in a meandering and mostly toothless movie

Tim Roth drifts vacantly through the hellscape of director Michel Franco’s Sundown.

Here’s something you can’t say about every movie: I learned something I didn’t know from watching Sundown. To wit: Acapulco sure ain’t what it used to be.

The follow-up to Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco’s New Order — a 2020 film that The Washington Post praised as “a diabolically imaginative dystopian fever dream of modern-day inequality and corruption” — is set in the once-fabled seaside resort town, which is still struggling to rebound from the dubious distinction it earned in recent years as the murder capital of the country, thanks to drug cartel violence.

You wouldn’t know its violent character from the opening scenes of Sundown, which focus on a family of super-rich tourists vacationing at a luxury Acapulco resort. For Neil (Tim Roth), his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her two adolescent children (Samuel Bottomley and Albertine Kotting McMillan) — all heirs to a prosperous English meatpacking business — this getaway is nothing but sea and swimming, great food, guitar music, gorgeous sunsets, and margaritas. All is apparently well with the world.

But then an event occurs that triggers Neil (and, predictably, the recognition that this idyllic picture is all an illusion). News arrives of an emergency back home, precipitating the family’s mad rush to the airport for a hasty flight home — without Neil, as it turns out, who announces, upon arriving at the airport, that he has forgotten his passport back at the hotel.

But there’s a strange, zombielike quality to this protagonist’s subsequent behavior, after his relatives have flown off and Neil heads not to the resort he just left, but to a seedy motel, where he proceeds to settle in, embarking on a sexual affair with a young woman (Iazua Larios) and whiling the days away drinking beer with her questionable male friends. When it becomes clear that Neil isn’t all that eager to rejoin his family — he lies to Alice when she calls, and then starts ghosting her completely, for weeks — the question becomes: Why?

Franco is clearly interested in highlighting the disparity between the opening scenes of wealth and the milieu of tawdriness and squalor in which the rest of the film is set — as well as Neil’s affectless reaction to it. When a man is gunned down in broad daylight on the beach, in a drive-by speedboat shooting, Neil stares at the bloody body with less reaction than one might have over a washed-up horseshoe crab.

Is he a sociopath? Is there something wrong with him physically? (Later developments suggest that there may be.) Or is he simply a convenient symbol of the apathetic haves in Franco’s allegory of the have-nots? Scenes of pigs wandering into Neil’s encounters — hallucinations, perhaps, or heavy-handed metaphors for both the slaughterhouse and obscene wealth — add a patina of social critique, but it’s generally toothless.

Sundown is at its most engrossing as an individual portrait, even if its inscrutable subject is a person to whom virtually no (sane) viewer will relate. Roth is still a great and mesmerizing actor, even when he’s drifting, vacantly, through a hellscape.

Given his résumé, Franco seems to be commenting on class and other social divisions. The film’s title could refer to the sundown of the ruling elite. It may also refer to the phenomenon of “sundowning,” a state of late-afternoon mental confusion common to dementia patients. Is Neil a stand-in for the 1 percent, whose days may or may not be numbered? Or is he just losing his mind? Franco’s director’s statement calls the film at once a “character study,” a “study of family dynamics,” and an “exploration of all perspectives present in Acapulco.” But the writer-director — or at least his film — is a bit too diffuse for any one of those things to make much of an impact. 

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