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Sundown ★★★★



Director: Michel Franco

Stars: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iazua Larios

Released: Toronto International Film Festival 2021

A sun-drenched holiday with the family in Acapulco within Sundown sounds idyllic as the purest form of escapism until the realities of life threaten to penetrate such bliss. The sheer abandonment of responsibilities may be the perfect dream for so many, as well as the ability literally to bury one’s head in the sand whilst on holiday. It offers a degree of voyeurism to watch its wealthy protagonist Neil, played chillingly by Tim Roth, embark on such an adventure of avoidance.

Sundown is Michel Franco’s love letter to Acapulco, and it emphatically underlines the beauty of its location.  Its slow pacing mirrors Neil’s indulgence as his actions seem selfish and can be aligned to the archetypal actions of a man suffering from a mid-life crisis who cannot manage the painful emotions of grief. Faced with a similar situation, many might adopt a new clothing style or buy a racing car as an outlet. However, Neil goes to the extreme by simply deciding to remain on holiday, listlessly watching the direct sunlight, and not to return home. The cascading effects are thrilling but uncomfortable to watch as more sinister activities unfold from Neil’s actions or lack thereof.

The cinematography presents this convincing picture of nirvana, perfectly capturing Neil’s mood and his enviable position in Mexico. It is so easy to become mesmerised by the panoramic views of a beach containing beautiful persons and seek the same freedom levels. The views linger in highlighting Neil’s isolation and individualism, as he sits alone at beach tables observing and his eventual journey to join a community and be part of the island culture.

However, it is not merely a tale of a man recapturing his youth with a predictable discovery arc. The film is unafraid to look directly into the viewpoint of the sun and therefore is similarly unafraid to present a sharp character observation of the emotional challenges. Neil’s refusal, or perhaps ignorance, to acknowledge his privileged status and its impact on a local community serves as a cautionary tale to devastating effect.

His unwittingly cruel act of abandoning his family during their time of need spirals out of control and demonstrates a flawed, weak character which Franco conveys impressively with minimal dialogue. Unfortunately, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character is woefully underused as that voice of reason to Neil.

Sundown is quietly powerful and lulls its audience into a false sense of security on the pretext of being fairly uneventful but successfully changes tack. Franco has achieved a masterfully crafted psychological tale of middle-aged rebellion to eschew conventions. The film’s silent but easy dismantling of such constructs leaves a resounding impact with some unexpectedly shocking scenes. Fortunately, such scenes avoid the continuous brutality of Franco’s earlier feature New Order.

Franco lures the audience into understanding Neil’s desires, but there is still that questionable element about whether his truth is the reality, adding to the film’s suspense. Sundown is, therefore, an intriguing blend that maintains its momentum with a drip-feed of multidimensional features.

Sundown may distract audiences with its initially simple slow-paced premise, but its storyline cuts to the heart of the meaning of family loyalty and effective communication. Sundown provides a riveting portrait of being responsible to ourselves to meet our own needs with the least amount of collateral damage. Franco has provided a moralistic tale, with its profoundly quiet examination of coping with grief which unveils sufficient nuance to provoke discussions after viewing.

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