In Sundown, a wealthy family’s vacation in Mexico is interrupted by a death at home, sending all but one of them back to the States. But what is Neil Bennett really doing in Mexico?

Sundown is one of those films that’s difficult to talk about, because not much happens in it. Which means the big things that do happen are major spoilers. I won’t get into the specifics of how everything unfolds, but let’s start by discussing the setup.

The movie opens with Neil and Alice Bennett taking a vacation in Mexico with Alice’s adult kids. Then, Alice gets a call – her mother has passed away suddenly. Obviously, the time for relaxing by the pool is over. The kids and Neil pack their belongings, load an inconsolable Alice into a van, and head for the airport to fly home. But when they arrive, Neil realizes he’s forgotten his passport at the hotel. Unable to board the plane, he sends the rest of the family on without him, declaring he will catch a later flight.

Neil grabs a cab. He checks into an entirely new hotel. And that’s when you realize he hasn’t forgotten his passport at all – it’s right there, in his suitcase. He’s just pretended to lose it so he doesn’t have to deal with Alice’s grief and the arrangements for the death in the family.

My first gut reaction? It seems like a garbage thing to do. But it’s early in the movie, and I know I don’t have all the information yet. At this point I move into a rationalizing phase, speculating reasons why Neil might act this way. Is this guy hiding something? Does he have ASPD? Is his relationship with his family really bad? Is he just an asshole?

I continued to ask myself these questions for the rest of the film.

The Man Who Can’t Be Moved

Sundown lets questions about Neil’s behavior pile up to astounding heights, refusing to give the viewers any sort of answer until the very end of the film. 

He fields Alice’s phone calls requesting updates (“Did you find your passport? What did the embassy say?”) first with more lies, then by avoiding her calls entirely. He spends his days planted on a chair at the beach, drinking beers and staring out at the water in silence. Eventually, he stumbles into a romance with a local, Bernice, though not much changes in his day-to-day routine.

He does not help Alice with the funeral or the legal arrangements. But for as much as he’s avoiding responsibilities at home, he never really seems to be enjoying his extended vacation. He remains as detached and emotionless as ever.

Tim Roth as Neil in Sundown

“Why are you doing this? What’s the matter with you?” Alice asks Neil at one point, echoing my own thoughts.

“Nothing,” he answers.

And as the viewer, you just have to take him at his word, because we don’t have any other evidence to the contrary.

Now, I don’t mind a mystery. A long-game. An end-of-film a-ha moment. Actually, I quite enjoy them. But events in Sundown play out a bit differently. By the time the semblance of an “answer” comes at the end, it almost feels like it doesn’t matter anymore.

Neil is so passive, so apathetic, so unmoved and unaffected by everything that happens around him – no matter how extreme – that frankly, he becomes incredibly difficult to latch onto as a character. He doesn’t do much of anything to make you like him. But he also doesn’t do enough to make you hate him, either. Neil comes across as a shell of a man, drifting through life. And though that may be a relatable feeling, it doesn’t really make you care about what he does next.

Strong Acting and Visuals Can’t Quite Save This One

It has to be said – the acting in Sundown impresses. 

As much as Roth’s Neil spends most of the film apathetic and detached, it presents as a very intentional, well-crafted performance. Whether you find Neil sympathetic or not, he always feels like a real person.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Alice doesn’t even have that much screen time. But her brief appearances stand in stark contrast to Neil’s long stretches of silent melancholy. She’s the emotion to his apathy; and when Alice’s feelings explode on screen, it’s a release for the audience as well. 

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Alice in Sundown

Iazua Larios’ Bernice somehow splits the difference between the two. She creates an emotional depth to Bernice even without speaking; her moments of silence feel more comfortable and natural than Neil’s, her moments of emotion less extreme than Alice’s.

The performances keep Sundown’s head above water, as does writer/director Michel Franco’s cinematic imagery. The visuals in the movie – long cuts to rippling water, lingering closeups of Neil’s unimpassioned face – really contribute to the melancholy yet detached vibe of the film. You get the sense that Neil’s vacation is more of a cage than an escape… and we’re all trapped right there with him.

The Sun Sets On Sundown

Unfortunately, the strong visual direction and solid performances can’t quite elevate this film into something to get excited about. It’s just too hard to connect to the lead, which makes everything that happens – even the big, should-be-buzzy-stuff – ring hollow. 

Do I like Neil? Do I hate him? Do I feel sorry for him? I can’t even say for sure. All I know is in the end, Sundown leaves me feeling a little too much like Neil: I just don’t care.

Tim Roth as Neil in Sundown