Michel Franco is a director who revels in his own status as a controversial filmmaker. His 2020 drama New Order drew vitriolic responses in his native Mexico for its depiction of a violent class uprising that saw the rich white population forced into subjugation by working class protesters of color. Many saw the film as feeding into classist and racist stereotypes, which prompted Franco to claim that he experienced “reverse racism” and was the victim of “hate crimes” as a white Mexican. The filmmaker apologized but would later remark in other interviews that he loves that New Order has generated such a vitriolic reaction from audiences, as all of his favorite directors made films which earned similar responses — a statement that makes his 2020 production all the more redundant.
The 2021 film Sundown is much less liable to offend, but it’s equally effective in highlighting Franco’s various flaws as a filmmaker. He is a director whose every project increasingly doubles up as a state of the nation address built upon beliefs that, to the casual observer, may feel inherently conservative. Acapulco, the city in which Sundown takes place, is statistically regarded as one of the world’s deadliest cities — and yet in Franco’s hands, this backdrop feels like it’s been utilized to subtly further many of the less than savory themes from New Order. What initially feels like one of the director’s least controversial works has a lot bubbling under the surface to suggest otherwise.
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In Sundown, Tim Roth stars as Neil Bennett — a wealthy British man vacationing in Acapulco. He’s there with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the two younger members of the Bennett clan, Colin and Alexa (Samuel Bottomley and Albertine Kotting McMillan, respectively) during what seems like a joy free holiday. In the film’s only interesting conceit, it specifically withholds how Neil and Alice are related, the initial assumption that they are partners who have grown estranged complicated further by several later developments.
One of those is the sudden news that Alice’s mother has died back in London, prompting the family to abandon the holiday to fly back. At the airport, Neil claims that he’s left his passport at the hotel, and then leaves his family to make the journey. He subsequently checks into a budget hotel on the other side of town, withdrawn from the emotional urgency of the situation and opting to have a holiday by himself. Neil routinely lies to Alice on the phone about Kafka-esque struggles to get a new passport, the distance between the pair growing literally and figuratively further.
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As is to be expected with Franco, this probing of the white upper class is told with long, static shots in Sundown, soaking up Neil’s detachment from this privileged milieu, and punctuating it with random bursts of violence. Franco may have grown into a recognizable art house name, but his stylistic sensibilities are still too deeply influenced by that of a considerably more effective filmmaker to ever feel distinctive. One could say that, by this stage, he’s the Brian De Palma to Michael Haneke’s Alfred Hitchcock — the only difference is that there’s nothing thrilling or intriguing in Sundown, only a derivative aesthetic.
This is a shame, because as distasteful as New Order may be, it does show an evolution for Franco as a filmmaker in its realization of a nation in the midst of an uprising, his camera constantly roaming through a more expansive world. Sundown is in the curious position of being a step backwards, while at least not plumbing to the ideological depths of New Order to quite the same extent. In the director’s notes given to press at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film had its North American premiere, Franco speaks about his distaste for the sharp rise in crime within the Acapulco area, and how he was once held at gunpoint — an experience that influenced the narrative of his 2021 film.
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In Sundown, this is shown entirely through a reign of terror by various unnamed gun-wielding teens, all of whom have considerably darker skin tones than the pale white protagonists. The film changes direction in its third act, as Franco’s screenplay suggests that Neil may have devised schemes so a death in the family could work to his benefit. But if the racial stereotyping exists because the drama unfolds from a perspective of white privilege, it’s deeply undercooked. The same goes for Franco’s visual metaphors Franco in Sundown. After all, there’s nothing particularly innovative about bloated pigs being used as a way to describe obscene wealth.
Sundown is ultimately held together by Roth’s central performance, which manages to capture the complexities of Neil as an individual. Nothing else within the film sustains interest in this enigma though, and it just results in Franco following his most problematic work with his most boring by far.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.