When there’s an actor I really like, I’ve sometimes said in reviews (although it may be cliche), “I could watch them just reading the phone book.”
Tim Roth is one of those actors I would have said that about. I loved him in Four Rooms (even though all the other critics hated that), Reservoir Dogs (which all the critics loved), Pulp Fiction (the Tarantino movie critics loved even more than Dogs), and my favorite movie of 2019 – Luce.
Yet here Roth plays Neil, the protagonist in Sundown, and all he does for the first 45 minutes of the movie is mope around Acapulco. Had he been reading the phone book, at least it would have been more exciting. Hell, at least he’d be saying something!
Writer/director Michel Franco purposely makes this mysterious. For example, Roth’s character starts this vacation with his family, and seems very uninterested in everything going on. When they go to the airport to fly home, he claims to have lost his passport and says he’ll catch another flight. Yet he stays there. So he can…go back to the beach and mope. It’s an hour into the movie before we realize why he’s in a funk, and has given up on his very lucrative business and family. At that point we’ve checked out and stopped caring.
On paper, what Franco does with this script probably seems interesting. You wonder if Neil has sympathy for the fish he caught that are dying? You wonder if his family just makes him so miserable, he wants to stay longer on the vacation to unwind. When he takes up with a local woman, you wonder if he’s in a loveless marriage. Again, an hour later a lot of that will make sense and you might sympathize with him; or, like my wife and I, you still wonder about the decisions he made in some of those instances; for example, agreeing to sign over his entire business and most of the money he makes from it. He’s signing that all over to Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is understandably furious with him, and yells and demands answers. He gives her none. I just thought to myself…all separations should be that easy. You’re not paying lawyers and fighting, but he’s simply saying “Fly the lawyer down here and I’ll sign everything over to you.”
What makes it hard for us to ever root for Neil is that on the way to the airport, there’s a phone call Alice gets. Her mom has died. So, his deciding to stay and drink beer and sleep around…is strange. Well, he’s not “sleeping around” with everyone. Just a shopkeeper named Bernice (Iazua Larios) that he buys a beer or Coke from at the end of his evenings, and makes small talk.
Critics can’t say much more about the story without spoiling it.
In the 3rd act when some over-the-top stuff happens, it’s a bit cryptic and…instead of having sympathy for Neil, I just felt he created some of these problems himself. So what on paper looked like an intriguing experiment in a perception you might have about a person, just doesn’t hold up.
1 star out of 5. In my best Elton John voice…Don’t let Sundown be the movie you see/Search the papers, for something better to see…