In the span of a year when everyone’s been on edge, prolific Mexican director Michel Franco managed to nuke our comfort zones not once, but twice, delivering separate provocations at back-to-back editions of the Venice Film Festival. In 2020, he won the Silver Lion for powder-keg thriller “New Order,” and now, he returns with the relatively understated — but still shocking — “Sundown.” While both are icy examinations of violence, inequality and explosive class conflict in contemporary Mexico, Franco could hardly be accused of repeating himself. Where “New Order” was in-your-face, “Sundown” returns to the controversial auteur’s earlier, arm’s-length approach.
The movie unfolds entirely in Acapulco, where a man (Tim Roth), a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and two grown “kids” (Albertine Kotting McMillan and Samuel Bottomley, who appear to be just shy of drinking age) are shown consuming: They swim; they sail; they eat out at posh restaurants where the waiter brings out the steaks for your approval before cooking them. These four are a family, but perhaps not in the way audiences might think. If you’re confused by how they relate, or why they behave as they do, rest assured, that’s Franco’s intention.
The high-minded director’s most successful film to date, conceptually speaking, “Sundown” is an intricate, unconventional puzzle — a mystery, complete with murder, in which the solution isn’t nearly so important as the process of putting it all together. Franco is deliberately stingy with details early on, confident that viewers will leap to their own conclusions, and in so doing, their personal prejudices (a loaded term but not necessarily a negative one) will shape how they view the situation. As more information comes out over the movie’s short 83-minute running time, audiences will not only understand the story better but ideally themselves as well, recognizing how false assumptions may have affected their initial reading of certain elements.
Take the first twist: The vacation is going fine until Alice Bennett (Gainsbourg) receives a call. From the little we gather, it seems as if her mother has been rushed to the hospital. Alice insists that everyone pack and head to the airport, receiving an update en route that devastates her. She passes the phone to Neil Bennett (Roth), who isn’t nearly as upset by the news. When they get to the check-in counter, Neil “realizes” that he has forgotten his passport, telling the others to go ahead. Then he hails a cab and takes it to a cheap hotel, thereby extending his vacation.
Roughly an hour later — a couple weeks in story time — Neil is stuck behind bars, and a representative from the British consulate poses the proverbial million-dollar question: “Why didn’t you go home for your mother’s funeral?” Unpack the consul rep’s wording carefully, and at least one connection becomes clear. But the point remains: What kind of man lets his family handle such an ordeal on their own?
In the interim (and it’s important not to reveal too much here), Neil has been spending his days at the beach, drinking Dos Equis and soaking up the sun. He makes friends with the busboys and makes love to Berenice (Iazua Larios), a local shopkeeper whose spirit seems a million times lighter than whatever weight Neil is carrying on his shoulders. How should we feel about his behavior? As in all six of his previous films, Franco withholds judgment, but this time, he encourages us to fall for the most superficial of stereotypes, then obliges us to reconsider as new intel comes in.
While nearly every filmmaker working today is trying, at some level, to create a pleasant experience for audiences, Franco is committed to challenging them. “Sundown” is no exception: The director’s mission is to throttle us out of our comfort zones, which he does by downplaying the more melodramatic aspects of his stories (putting him in the company of Michael Haneke and Ruben Östlund), using a style certain to frustrate and divide.
Over the years, Franco has come to recognize a certain elitism among the film-fest and art-house crowds that turn out for his movies, and he plays our presumed privilege to his advantage here — weaponizing our concern, as it were. Do we empathize with the Bennetts? When a character is shot dead mere feet from Neil on the beach, how do we react? What does that say about us?
As the Bennetts — millionaire heirs to a slaughterhouse fortune and attractive targets for gang scouts known as halcones (“hawks”) — Roth and Gainsbourg deliver performances at opposite ends of the spectrum. Neil comes across nihilistically detached, whereas Alice is histrionic. He’s a passive zombie. She screams; she sobs; she makes proactive decisions. She also calls and texts constantly. What would she think if she could see what we do? We’ll soon find out, but again, she knows things that we don’t, and vice versa. Their lack of healthy communication skills is one of the film’s themes.
Perhaps Franco could be accused of the same, but there’s a difference between ambiguity and confusion, and the director is aiming for the former. This far into his career, working in a consistently withholding register, he understands that audiences project themselves in the vast spaces between clear answers — one reason so much depends on the first viewing. Yes, “Sundown” is a mystery, but it’s also a Rorschach test. No two people will see the film the same way.