Michel Franco is not in the business of providing comfort. The Mexican auteur’s pithy reflections on class, cruelty and the cold hard truth of mortality are as rigorous in their stripped-back style as they are in their refusal to cushion the impact of an unremittingly bleak worldview. In the director’s 2016 English-language debut, Chronic, Tim Roth played a palliative care worker whose selfless dedication to his job only partly masks the punishing psychological cost of being surrounded by death. In Franco’s new film, Sundown, Roth is a more cryptic figure, a wealthy Brit strangely numb to the loss and trauma suffered by his family, for reasons revealed only in the closing scenes.
In last year’s polarizing provocation from Franco, New Order, the obscene privilege and corruption of the super-rich is overthrown by a bloody revolution not even remotely kinder or gentler. The moneyed protagonist this time — one of the heirs of a multibillion-pound English slaughterhouse and pork production empire, in a bit of pointed symbolism that will escape no one — seems indifferent to every distressing turn of events that befalls those closest to him. And yet, in Roth’s impassive performance, there’s a clear sense of something terrible gnawing away at him, of a man with nothing left to give as he separates himself from his background and drifts into an indolent life in a place where pleasure and violence exist side by side.
A grim twilight.
The opening seems deceptively untroubled by Franco’s standards, almost like a White Lotus riff minus the social satire. Sure, Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is fielding work calls and popping pills when not on a massage table at a swanky Acapulco resort, and Roth’s Neil looks a tad morose in the blazing sun out on a boat. But at least college-age kids Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) seem to be having a good time, chilling over margaritas and watching a cliff-diving exhibition in which daredevil locals risk their lives for tips from the tourist audience. Only gradually does it become evident that Alice and Neil are not in fact husband and wife but siblings.
When Alice gets a distressing call from England saying their mother has been rushed to hospital, she insists they all leave immediately. But before they even get to the airport, another call informs them she has died. As they rush to board rebooked flights, Neil announces he has left his passport behind, insisting that they go on ahead without him and he’ll catch the next available flight.
His deception is immediately obvious when he grabs a taxi, and returns not to the resort but to a no-frills hotel in town by the public beach, suggested by his eager-to-please but shady cab driver, Jorge (Jesús Godines). Neil maintains the charade over frantic phone calls from Alice, making sympathetic noises while telling her that his passport has vanished and he has to wait until after the weekend to visit the consulate for a temporary replacement. He declines Alice’s offer to have family lawyer Richard (Henry Goodman) step in to expedite the process, but promises he’ll be there in time to help his distraught sister and her kids through the funeral.
Instead, Neil begins a drowsy ritual of shuffling down to the crowded beach each day, subsisting on cervezas and the occasional plate of seafood while the water laps at his feet. He seems to have mentally checked out until a flirtation with kiosk worker Berenice (Iazua Larios) drifts into sex and low-key romance. Even jarring experiences of violence and crime don’t seem to trouble him too gravely — not when a shooter speeds into shore on a jet-ski and pumps a bullet into a man standing just a few feet away, and not when he returns to his hotel room to find his belongings stolen.
Detachment is so thoroughly ingrained in Roth’s characterization that you’re left with few clues as you speculate about its causes. When a furious Alice returns to Mexico with Richard after the funeral, Neil makes no effort to apologize or explain why he stayed behind and effectively went into hiding. Alice already has been running the family business with zero input from her brother, and he willingly signs over his share of the estate in exchange for a monthly stipend. In a small role that makes you wish she had more screen time, Gainsbourg brings a welcome jolt of static interference to the drama with Alice’s rage and frustrated incomprehension, which spirals quickly into contempt.
At the same time, Franco — refraining as always from any use of non-diegetic music — injects a subdued sense of dread through occasional blasts of ominous ambient hum. Still, the violence that explodes midway is vicious and shocking, steering the story onto a different curve as tragic events land Neil in legal hot water, amplified by unflattering coverage in the British press back home.
A quietly hostile encounter with Colin and Alexa further cements his estrangement from the fractured family, and only Richard, in his professional capacity, remains involved. But the director gets a bit heavy-handed when Neil starts having visions of butchered pigs, which suggests his disgust with the family’s perch of wealth and privilege without actually developing that idea.
Despite the tight run time of less than 90 minutes, the film’s unrelenting nature becomes more sour and unrewarding as it inches forward. Continuing his collaboration with Belgian cinematographer Yves Cape, Franco frames the action often from a chilly remove in medium-distance shots that echo the emotional austerity of Roth’s impressively sustained performance. However, that approach also means that despite the dark tingle of suspense running through the story, its protagonist remains remote, even when a valid motivation for his behavior is uncovered in the somber final scenes.
Franco is a highly disciplined filmmaker who’s nothing if not consistent in style, tone and thematic range. As a character study of a man with good reason to wean himself off the very basic human instinct of hope and teach himself, even at some personal cost, to care for no one and nothing, Sundown gains texture from its stark setting in a seaside playground stained with blood. But of all the director’s films to date, this might be the most airless.