By Adam Nayman
The indefatigable Michel Franco is back on his grind with Sundown, a companion piece to last year’s accomplished or objectionable (depending on who you ask) New Order. Both films—one a thriller, the other a character study, both set in the director’s native Mexico—could broadly be said to be about “wealth inequality.” Careful viewers will note that in both cases, Franco has taken the path of least resistance, critiquing economic privilege by focusing on and pathologizing those who have it, and reducing the impoverished classes on whose behalf he is ostensibly working to vague, threatening, racialized presences around the edges of his precisely composed, transnationally saleable frames.
Vacationing in Acapulco with his sister and her two teenage kids, Neil (Franco’s pal and amanuensis Tim Roth) initially appears no more or less feckless than any other monied Westerner accustomed to room service. But his slumped, almost paralytic indifference speaks to something deeper: a man who wants for nothing wants nothing at all. Neil’s refusal to head home for a death in the family—lying to sis (Charlotte Gainsbourg) about misplacing his passport, and then spending his days dodging her anxious texts from London in an agreeably alcoholic haze—is initially a source of mystery, and a tantalizing one. But “Gotcha” Franco is only interested in ambiguity insofar as it allows him to fuck with and bamboozle his viewership. The enigma doesn’t last: instead, we get a set of increasingly prosaic explanations that not only undermine Roth’s beautifully modulated performance, with its boneless physicality and careless whispers, but also torpedo the potentially interesting (and timely) theme of a rich man renouncing his birthright out of simple boredom. As for the aforementioned diagnosis of “wealth inequality,” cutting nudgingly between five-star and one-star hotels and staging outbursts of gun violence in broad daylight at irregular intervals—ostensibly to inveigh against…normalizing gun violence in Mexico—is as clever as this director gets.