One of the advantages of casting an unknown actor in a starring role is that the audience has no previous attachment to him — as far as we know, the actor is the character he’s playing. Conversely, veteran character actors have such a longstanding relationship with us that they bring all their excellent previous work into a new role. (We immediately like whatever character they play because, well, they’re playing him.) But it’s rare for someone we’ve seen on screen for decades to still seem mysterious, to still be a fascinating blank slate. We know him, but we don’t know him.
It’s hard to explain what’s driving Neil, the enigmatic main character of Sundown, which opens this Friday. Likewise, the film itself is hard to pin down. Is it a drama? A mystery? An existential thriller? Whatever it is, and whatever Neil’s doing, the story wouldn’t work nearly as well without Tim Roth at its center. Here’s an actor we’ve seen for nearly 35 years, and yet as Neil he manages to be a cipher, except for the hints of menace we associate with some of Roth’s most famous roles. But Neil isn’t actually evil, at least he doesn’t appear to be. He’s going on an odyssey that doesn’t make any sense — except, the more you think about it, the more logical it becomes. Neil wants to get away from it all — what the “all” really means, though, is open to interpretation.
The 60-year-old English actor has often played villains and tough guys. Even when he’s ostensibly the hero, it’s complicated: His Vincent van Gogh in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo was a troubled soul, and in his first Quentin Tarantino film, Reservoir Dogs, he was part of the gang of thieves, except he was actually an undercover cop. Rarely does Roth get to be the leading man, but he is in Sundown, although part of what’s so engrossing about the film is that he’s this question mark at the center of the frame. It’s almost as if the story’s real protagonist stepped out for a moment, and Roth’s riddle of a man has filled his spot in the meantime.
Neil is on vacation in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her kids Colin and Alexa (Samuel Bottomley, Albertine Kotting McMillan). Mexican writer-director Michel Franco keeps us at arms’ length from these characters, observing them like they’re lab specimens. Eventually, we gather some clues about who they are: They’re from London, part of a lucrative family business, which apparently Alice deals with more than her brother does. In the midst of their trip, where they’re staying at a gorgeous, sleek resort, Alice gets a call: Something’s wrong with their mother and they’ve got to head home immediately. But when they get to the airport, learning that she’s died, Neil realizes he left his passport at the hotel. The plane’s boarding right now, so he’s going to have to stay behind — he’ll catch the next flight as soon as he gets his ID.
There’s a chilly alienness to Sundown’s early scenes — a sense that everything seems normal but is just a bit off — and that odd feeling only amplifies when Neil proceeds not to go back to their hotel. Instead, he checks into a more modest place and hangs out on the beach. He befriends a pretty younger woman, Berenice (Iazua Larios), who works at a local tourist trap. Soon, they’re sleeping together. Meanwhile, his sister keeps calling frantically from London — she needs help with the funeral arrangements. Did he ever find his passport? What’s going on? Neil calls back, lying that he can’t find it and is trying to speak to the consulate. But he seems to have no intention of actually returning home. He’s just going to be doing… this now.
Sundown is Roth’s second feature with Franco, who has a knack for provocation. His last film, New Order, dramatized a violent overthrow of Mexico’s One Percent, and there’s an undercurrent of class warfare going on in Sundown as well. (The pampered Neil hasn’t bothered to learn Spanish, the locals cater to him as a rich white tourist, and occasionally deadly violence will break out.) Previously, Franco and Roth made Chronic, which was also about a deeply withdrawn man — in that case, a nurse who cared for the dying in their homes, focusing his energies on them rather than himself. In both films, Roth seems to relish playing nonentities, the sorts of guys you’re not supposed to make movies about. Where are their “character motivations”? Why doesn’t the script explain their unusual behavior? Why do these movies do everything “wrong”? Roth has never seemed that concerned about making conventional Hollywood movies, so all the things that are teasingly off-kilter — potentially even off-putting — about Sundown are probably exactly what appealed to him.
Often playing lowlife punks and violent brutes in Tarantino’s films, doing villainous turns in Rob Roy (his only Oscar nomination) and the 2001 Planet of the Apes, Roth has focused on more commonplace scoundrels in recent years. For last year’s Bergman Island, he played a smug filmmaker who’s slightly condescending to his aspiring-filmmaker girlfriend Vicky Krieps, while in Resurrection, which just premiered at Sundance, he torments Rebecca Hall’s single mom simply by showing up in places that she frequents, holding a key to her troubled past. Roth doesn’t have to do much in those roles to give off a sense of foreboding — he’s not scary so much as he’s vaguely intimidating. And it’s not because he’s some hulking individual — it’s in his eyes, which suggest you should not, under any circumstance, fuck with this guy.
Roth turns that all off for Neil, whose casual decision to disconnect from everything is left opaque. But the intentional chilliness of the filmmaking leaves us wary. On one level, there’s something deeply satisfying about the notion of just dropping the vestiges of what defines you to disappear into a new reality. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of staying on vacation forever, creating a new life, never going back to what we knew? Neil does just that, although Roth never makes it seem especially triumphant or nefarious. Neil enjoys his time with Berenice, but he makes no professions of true love. Drinking beer on the sand and having sex every night back at his hotel is all he requires. He seems content with this paradisiacal limbo — all he has to hope is that his old life doesn’t come to claim him.
Because that “getting away from it all” fantasy is such a strong one in our culture, it’s intriguing to see how Roth and Franco subvert it. Because we associate Roth with bad guys, the nonchalance of his actions is hard to gauge. Is Neil being selfish by abandoning his sister when she really needs him? Is this how he grieves for his mother? Or has he secretly longed for a freedom he never thought he could have? Neil never explains himself, and when Alice returns to Acapulco to confront him, he remains blasé. He simply tells her he’s not coming home. Why not? He gives no reason. He just isn’t.
With another actor, this might all be deeply frustrating. But because Roth has always been such an intelligent onscreen presence — even when his characters are cretins, you can sense their smarts — we watch Sundown to observe Neil’s mind work. He seems to care about his sister and her kids, and yet he feels detached from everything. He wants to stay in Acapulco, but he’s merely biding his time. (At one point, the film was actually called Driftwood.) But as Sundown rolls along, he makes it clear just how determined he is not to return to London. Neil is never outwardly malicious, never calculating — this is just what he needs to do. There’s a method behind this letting-go process, but hell if we can figure it out.
A reason we form an emotional bond with character actors is that they seem more like us than glamorous movie stars do — it makes them relatable. But Roth has often held something back, never wanting us to know everything about his characters. (That goes for him as a person as well — you don’t see him on a bunch of talk shows or doing a ton of press for his projects.)
His unknowability has been his secret weapon, and in Sundown, he gives us a man who doesn’t want to let us in. Near the finale, we will come to understand what has driven Neil to this whimsical decision to walk away from everything. After all these decades, Roth has maintained an ability to be an unknown commodity on screen — and so we come away from Sundown not sure exactly how to feel about Neil. Some character actors long to be leading men, but Roth doesn’t seem like one of them. No wonder Neil is a man who isn’t there — you see him, but you really don’t. That’s how Roth prefers it.