After last year’s explosively angry New Order, the prolific Mexican director Michel Franco returns to the Venice Film Festival with Sundown, the minor-key story of a man who decides to abandon his life in favor of getting drunk and shacking up with a cheerful local woman in Acapulco. It is his second collaboration with British actor Tim Roth who plays Neil and who sinks into hazy irresponsibility with the ease of a backpacker who has mastered getting into a hammock. Charlotte Gainsbourg as Neil’s sister is his nervy counterpoint.
It is clear enough that Gainsbourg’s Alice Bennett is permanently wired tight. On holiday with Neil and her two teenage children Colin and Alexa (Samuel Bottomley and Albertine Kotting McMillan), she can’t leave her phone alone. While cocktails are served to their suite from mid-morning, she is also slipping down the odd pill. It emerges that she runs the family business, a meat company that includes farms and slaughterhouses as well as manufacturing. Neil is along for the ride, both as a business partner and on holiday with the rest of them.
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So they’re a happy family, apparently, each satisfied with their respective lots. Or are they? We know Neil loves Alice’s children, because he can quite unaffectedly say so. How he feels about anyone else is open to question. When news comes that their mother is in hospital, Alice is distraught and immediately orders the children to pack to go home. Neil falls into line, as is clearly expected, but seems barely moved even when a second phone call lets them know that mother has died. By the time they reach the airport, high-flying executive Alice is hysterical with grief.
Which is when Neil tells everyone he has forgotten his passport. He can’t board the flight. He will come as soon as he can. Except that he doesn’t. He moves to a cheap hotel next to the public beach, orders a bucket full of bottled beer and will chew the fat with any shady character who takes the next deckchair, even if they barely have any language in common. Berenice (Iazua Larios), who works at the local store where he buys his last beer each night, is friendly. Friendly is fine with him. She becomes his companion, a source of uncomplicated, fleshy warmth. Alice calls repeatedly, baffled and furious. Neil puts his phone in a drawer.
His reasons are revealed only gradually, but you will probably have guessed what is going on by the time you’re told. What Franco does singularly well is pick up on telling details around the edges of his narrative that are little stories in themselves. There is a shocking random shooting on the beach, after which the music strikes up and beer continues being delivered as if nothing had happened.
We watch and squirm as boys dive off the cliff into the churning ocean to entertain the rich resort guests: it’s all part of the service. Even the endless plates of shrimp, served up at the cheap beach restaurants Neil favors once he is on his own, start to seem overwhelming. That mix of edginess and excess is uncomfortably familiar to any First World tourist who has gone to a country like Mexico to enjoy the kind of holiday they could never afford at home. We’re all part of that picture.
Neil isn’t going to get away with his beachcomber fantasy, of course; the noose of fate will tighten inexorably around his burnt neck. The family will not let him simply slip away. Neither will Acapulco, with its obscene divisions of wealth and restive violence; more tragedy is in store. This is a sliver of a story, told quickly, but it lingers like sunspots on the backs of your eyelids as your eyes close, tired by looking out to sea.
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