Synopsis: Neil and Alice Bennett are the core of a wealthy family on vacation in Mexico until a distant emergency cuts their trip short. When one relative disrupts the family’s tight-knit order, simmering tensions rise to the fore.
Stars: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iazua Larios, Henry Goodman, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Samuel Bottomley
Director: Michel Franco
Running Length: 83 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Perhaps it was the subzero temperatures plaguing the Midwest these past weeks, but the opening moments of the curiously hard to classify new film Sundown truly worked some magic spell on me. A family is on vacation in some unnamed tropical locale (later learned to be Acapulco) and not doing much of anything save for moving from one high-end deck chair near their private pool to another on the beach close to the ocean. Their luxury resort staff brings them drinks to sip, but they don’t seem to be savoring anything. It looks to the viewer that this is less a vacation and more of an obligation; what some of us would consider a significant expense is simply another posh stay in paradise.
It’s the quiet prelude to director Michel Franco’s introduction of the Bennett’s. They’re the ultra-rich barons of an empire built on an industry that deals in converting flesh to food, which explains why world-weary Neil (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) gradually starts seeing more hogs haunting him as the film progresses. It’s one of the very few insights I can offer you at the outset because Franco has constructed his story to be a puzzle with pieces that can fit together in many ways and I’m not about to tell you where to begin. As you may imagine, that approach can really start to provoke a frustrating response while you’re there in the moment and involved with these brittle characters for 75-ish minutes.
The Acapulco tranquility doesn’t last long, and soon Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samba) has boarded a plane with children Colin (Samuel Bottomley, Get Duked!) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), and Neil stays behind to find his passport. Of course, Neil knows precisely where his passport is, but he’s taken this opportunity to break free of his family and take his type of vacation. Ditching the five-star service of his accommodations for an oceanside tourist trap, he takes up with a local woman (Iazua Larios, Apocalypto) and finds himself in the company of a group who show him a different side of his destination, one with unexpected dangers and lasting repercussions in his family.
I spent a good half of the film thinking it was a story heading in one direction, only to realize that it’s the opposite with one slight adjustment in information from Franco. Reframing a movie as aloof as Sundown when you’re nearly 2/3 of the way through requires some moxie. Still, Franco, Roth, and especially Gainsbourg (always interesting, always game to play) use that surge of energy via a quite breathtaking and breathless bit of filmmaking to propel the film into its final act. Sadly, I think the movie winds up losing its forward momentum again by the time it concludes. However, that it gets so close to the finish line without evaporating under its oppressive heft of Purpose (yes, that’s with a capital “P”) speaks volumes to its performances more than anything.