Vacations are meant to be exciting. That’s the whole point. You leave your home and travel so that you can both have fun and escape the humdrumness of regular life. In fact, the travel industry is huge because it allows us to escape our problems and distract ourselves with either sightseeing or relaxation. Because of this, those of us who are lucky enough to vacation often semi-seriously pose the question of staying in said vacation spot forever, despite knowing that we would never in a million years do such a thing.
However, as much as there is an (often literally) sunny side to rest abroad, there is a dark underbelly to escapism, and not always in the way we expect. Michel Franco’s Sundown tells the story of Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) as he visits the bright beaches of Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two children. While there, the family receives some unfortunate news that requires an early end to the trip. Upon reaching the airport, Neil discovers he doesn’t have his passport and must stay in Mexico.
The film then presents key elements of vacation that Neil appears to enjoy. He falls asleep on the beach, drinks as many beers as he wants, start a relationship, and ultimately ignores the problem at home despite its import. Simultaneously, the film conveys Neil’s apathy towards his personal life and his surroundings, and therein lies the intrigue Sundown is predicated on.
The camera lingers on Neil’s beach and pool excursions as he simply falls asleep in a standard plastic chair, oblivious to the beautiful beach and bustling community around him, suggesting he has abandoned the vigor of life. Though Neil involves himself with a woman, little is revealed about her, emphasizing Neil’s indulgence in base human desire, like sex and companionship, but is devoid of the depth of emotional significance. These messages are conveyed in every detail of the Sundown, even down to the production design. Neil stays in a dingy hotel room that highly contrasts itself with the paradise where he previously stayed with his family. Franco works hard to communicate that Neil’s continued vacation is one of existentialism and borderline depression and means to expose the ugly truths of leisure time and life itself.
Roth’s performance is what holds the film together. In almost every scene, he brilliantly portrays the ins and outs of existential crises, displaying a wide range of emotions at various points of the film. The rest of the cast, including several locals, supports Roth in both appeasement and outrage of his self-inflicted predicament.
As Neil’s family conflict draws nearer, Franco subtly portrays Neil’s inner struggles with the meaninglessness of life and crafts a character that is both sympathetic and disgustingly selfish. Perhaps Franco means to comment on Neil’s socio-economic position, which is ultimately privileged, but it may be that the film is purely an exploration of thought processes and aging. Either way, the film is expertly paced. Franco wastes no time with frivolous plot details instead of letting the viewer interpret and absorb them.
Had another director helmed the project, Sundown might have made a sub-par action film. However, the strength of the film is that psychological exploration with a subplot that is just intriguing enough to keep the viewer entertained. Instead of being distracted by beautiful people and big explosions, Franco forces the viewer to wallow, just as Neil does, in the extremities and apathy of the situation. In doing so, Sundown reflects the nature of its own medium. The film has always been about spectacle and inviting the viewer to watch a man’s downward spiral while requiring that they confront the purpose of existence is indicative yet critical of what the industry aims to achieve.
Therefore, Sundown is at once leisure time and examining the worst that can happen during leisure time. Vacation, designed to relieve the troubling thoughts that make being alive difficult, can result in a distraction-free space that invites even more troubling thoughts in. Mimicking the very idea of a vacation, the film is certainly entertaining, but not without requiring mental energy. A viewer inclined to leave existentialism behind need not apply, but one with a desire to tackle life’s questions should definitely give Sundown a spin.