Tim Roth in Sundown (2022)
Sundown, written and directed by Michel Franco, unfolds around the magnetism of Tim Roth. The actor plays protagonist Neil Bennett, a character seemingly detached from his surroundings from the start. He is introduced in paradise, spending time with family at a secluded resort in Acapulco. There is something about his presence that feels he is lightyears away from where he is physically, as if he is not existing at all. A distant emergency disrupts the vacation, but this news quickly fades into oblivion given where the story progresses. His family: sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her children Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), appear to be tight-knit. Together upon hearing the news, they don’t think twice about packing and heading for the airport. Neil trails behind with uninhibited demeanor, nonchalantly realizing he’s forgotten his passport and ensures the family fly home without him. Neil’s intentions and reasoning for his actions to follow are tricky to understand, but it is Roth’s knowing gaze that invites curiosity beyond else to see this performance (and this film) through to the end. It is no easy feat to play a character whose emotions are more hidden, and Roth does so with a gut-punch reminder of why he’s such a great actor. For Sundown benefits greatly from a towering talent at the center who can create a simmering tension by way of aura alone. Without uttering any explanation for all the questions his actions conjure up, Roth casts a relaxed spell on this existential puzzle of a story.
Sundown takes a slow-build look at the rising tensions within a wealthy British family, of which Neil is part of. Much like this protagonist who doesn’t seem to be thinking twice, fleeing from one decision to another, the film moves at a measured pace matching the energy he carries. The distant emergency that cuts the Bennett family vacation short is just one of a series of bleak events. Michel Franco does well to frame the story around Neil and his perspective, which itself is shrouded in mystery. Sometimes the director pushes too far into vagueness and starts to lose grip of a story to tell, but Roth’s performance is a strong enough core to anchor the long contemplative takes. The protagonist running away from confronting the cause and effect of his actions makes watching this film consistently unexpected. By the end, Franco’s screenplay reveals a puzzle left unfinished. Sundown sparks conversation around the human urge to be someplace different, to change your surroundings. Neil acts on this urge, though what is most interesting to watch is the space in between his past life and the life he wants elsewhere. It’s the perpetual state of not just being lost, but losing what you had. Those moments of Neil in utter silence and hard-to-read are the most memorable.
Sometimes a film comes along where the collaborative magic between an actor and director is felt so strongly. The trust in Tim Roth to lead this journey, holding the key to what makes you feel so inclined for answers and yet kind of pleased not to know, is well-placed. The restraint with which this character leaves one life behind to start another is startling to process. Neil makes awful choices, painful ones that are consequential for his family, especially his sister Alice who is left shellshocked by what has transpired. Charlotte Gainsbourg has the more heightened emotional scenes of the two; she expertly conveys her character’s frustration and the pain of being left behind in the blink of an eye. One scene of an aloof Neil asking Alice to dinner so nonchalantly, after everything that happened between them, is a standout moment indicating just how unnerving it is to watch the consequences of his actions without accountability. Especially when not knowing the thought process behind it all.
The unsettled disposition of Neil Bennett calls into memory the protagonist of another recent film: Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) in The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel. Albeit, they find themselves at different stages of making difficult choices with familial consequences. While Leda is confronting years-long memories, Neil is fresh in the wake of his decisions. Whoever you think Neil is at sunrise, his character is painted in an entirely new light by sundown, and the pattern repeats. There is more to the character than meets the eye. Tim Roth does a fantastic job of revealing just enough to maintain mystery, without giving too much sway towards a definite conclusion. With impressive restraint in Franco’s direction, matched by Roth’s played-down performance, Sundown shines as a thought-provoking story of a human being in perpetual search not necessarily for something better, but for an awakening from his slumber. Someplace where the warmth of the sun will be there to greet him without interference.
Catch Sundown at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting April 8.