"Sundown" -- from writer-director Michel Franco -- opens with a shot of several fish on the deck of a boat. As they make their last gasps for oxygen, a man stares down at them with a solemn melancholy gaze. It's a scene rich with meaning that over time will become clearer and clearer. And while the metaphor is easy to grasp, the details surrounding it are far more opaque.
With "Sundown," Franco has crafted a shrewd and methodical story that's as much of a puzzle as it is a drama. Information does come, but slowly and only when Franco sees fit to share it. That gives him plenty of room to challenge his audience. As things begin to happen, we're lured into jumping to our own conclusions and making our own judgments. And that's when Franco has us where he wants us.
The man in the opening scene is Neil Bennett and he's played by a perfectly calibrated Tim Roth. Neil, a woman named Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and two college-age kids, Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), are vacationing at a posh high-end resort in Acapulco. Franco deliberately holds back details, allowing us to piece together what we can through the characters and their interactions. They're clearly wealthy as evident by their luxury accommodations, servers at every turn, and steak dinners costing a car payment apiece.
Another thing that's abundantly clear -- Neil is troubled. Despite the swims in the beautiful turquoise water, the sunbathing on a private beach, and being treated to the best cuisine, Neil seems detached, often lost in his thoughts and staring into oblivion. What's wrong with him? Do Alice and the kids know? They seem to give him his space. Is it due to something we've yet to learn or is it just a mark of their relationship? Franco eventually sheds light on it all, but only after his story takes some unexpected turns.
Their vacation abruptly comes to halt after Alice gets a call from London that her mother is seriously ill and being rushed to a hospital. The four immediately pack and head to the airport. But once there, Neil informs his family he forgot his passport at the resort. He insists that a distraught Alice and the kids go ahead and he'll catch the next flight. But rather than going back to the resort, Neil takes a cab to a cheap beachside hotel.
Despite telling Alice he lost his passport and is working with the consulate to get back to London, Neil spends the next several days slouched in a plastic chair on a crowded beach surrounded by locals, downing buckets of beer and staring up into the sun. His behavior becomes even more revolting once we learn Alice's mother has died and she needs his help with with funeral arrangements. Instead of heading to London, Neil stops taking Alice's calls altogether.
So what's going on with this guy? Is it a midlife crisis? Is it deep depression or existential dread? Is he a bad person or is it something deeper than that? Franco's deliberate and calculated approach to answering those questions are what make Neil's story so brutally compelling. And Roth, with his droopy oversized shirts, long shorts and sandals, gives a brilliantly cryptic performance that keeps his character's emotions so tightly locked inside that he's nearly impossible to read.
The only glimpses of potential happiness in Neil comes when he meets a local shop owner Bernice (Iazua Larios). The two hit it off and begin a relationship which raises even more concerns about this man. Everything seems to be careening toward a not-so-happy ending, but to get there Franco takes his story places you'll never expect. Along the way he explores themes often found in his films -- class, family dysfunction, violence, etc.
"Sundown" had its world premiere in September at Venice and it's finally set for its U.S. release (via Bleecker Street). It packs a lot into its lean 83 minutes. The story is bleak and at times appalling, but Franco never casts judgment on Neil or his actions. He leaves that to us. But he does so in such a crafty way that figuring things out and reaching our own conclusions is much of what makes the film so effective.
87 Cast: Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iazua Larios, Henry Goodman, Albertine Kotting McMillan, Samuel Bottomley
Director: Michel Franco
Rating: R, for sex, violence, crude language and some graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes