The sun burns bright in Acapulco, where a group of Brits is away on lazy, lounging holiday. The group consists of adults Neil (Tim Roth) and Allison (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and youthful – perhaps somewhere in their 20s, or maybe younger, it's never specified – Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) and Colin (Samuel Bottomley). They swim, they drink, they play games. And when she thinks no one is looking, Allison sneaks away to check her work email, unable to fully embrace the vacation spirit.
She won't have much of a chance to do so, anyway, because a phone call alerts her that her mother has gone into the hospital. The group decides to cut the vacation short to return home, but before they even get to the airport another call comes in announcing Allison's mother has died.
In these opening moments, writer-director Michel Franco wants us to make assumptions. The way these scenes unfold, it would be logical to assume that Neil and Allison are a couple and Alexa and Colin are their children. But while these people are indeed a family, it's not that simple. There's more going on here, and there's more going on in nearly every moment of "Sundown," a genuinely chilling movie that just happens to take place in bright, abundant sunshine.
When the family gets to the airport, Neil reveals he's forgotten his passport just as their plane is about to take off. Allison wants to catch another plane, but she's so distraught over her mother's death that Neil and the kids both insist Allison, Alexa, and Colin take this flight, and Neil will catch another after he returns to the resort to retrieve his passport. It's here where Franco starts to reveal some of his cards. Neil leaves the airport and, rather than return to the resort, asks to be taken to a hotel – an indication that he was lying and he didn't forget his passport at all.
At his new hotel, Neil proceeds to head to the beach, talk to some locals, and meet a beautiful younger local woman, Berenice (Iazua Larios). The two fall into a love affair pretty quickly, spending ample time together either on the beach, in bed, or in the shower. All the while, Allison keeps calling, wondering where Neil is and when he's coming home. He assures her he's working on it, lying that he was unable to find his passport at the resort and is just waiting for the American consulate to sort things out.
A Blank Mask
Roth is a blank mask here; an impenetrable fortress of a man. The actor plays Neil in such a unique still, quiet way that it's nearly impossible to get a read on him. And that's the point. What is Neil thinking? Why isn't he returning home? Does he even have a plan? It takes a lot of work to play a character so closed-off, so vacant, and Roth is sensational.
Neil's rouse quickly evaporates when Allison returns to Acapulco. She's flabbergasted by Neil's actions, at one point yelling, "What are you doing?" It's a good question, and "Sundown" is in no hurry to answer it. Little by little, like a leaky faucet slowly dripping beads of water, details are revealed, and even then, we still don't have all the answers.
The genius of "Sundown" is how little it tells us while keeping us glued to what we're seeing. The mystery makes us hang on every moment, every line, no matter how simple. A one-word answer is suddenly loaded with weight. A silent glance says a million different things. And then the violence starts. There are multiple occasions where, seemingly out of nowhere, sudden bursts of shocking violence erupt, featuring gunfire that's been mixed to sound as if it's a massive explosion. It jolts us from the stillness and leaves us shaken.
Whenever I say something like "The less you know about this movie, the better it will be" in a review, I feel like it's a cop-out, like I'm not doing my job. But the fact is that there are some movies that play best when you have as little information as possible, and "Sundown" is one of them. All you need to know is that Franco has supreme control over what he's doing here, guiding us along by the hand towards destinations, and answers, unknown. Even when you think you know all the answers, "Sundown" will still leave you unsure, still guessing, haunted by all that was left unspoken.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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