Reviewed by: Ryan McLelland

When the film Sunset came onto my radar it immediately interested me for multiple reasons.  The first was that Sunset had won the Best Dramatic Feature at the 2018 Manhattan Film Festival.  The second, and probably biggest reason, was that Austin Pendleton was amongst the small cast (interview link coming soon).  I absolutely adore Pendleton’s work going all the way back to when I was a kid watching The Muppet Movie 465 times a week.  He’s had a long, storied career on stage, television, and film which includes My Cousin Vinny, Short Circuit, Sgt. Bilko (a huge guilty pleasure), What’s Up Doc?, and one of my favorite movies of all time: Searching for Bobby Fischer.

I was quite surprised about the approach taken in Sunset.  The film is about a group of friends coming to grips with a terrorist attack that had taken place across the country in California.  The group, as well as most Americans, are taken back by the terrorist event.  When an announcement comes of an imminent nuclear attack on New York City, these group of friends then have to each decide whether to leave their New Jersey homes for safety or simply ride out the threat to see if it does actually occur.

It’s a tense setup but the actors onscreen do a wonderful job conveying the true emotions of such a dire situation.  They use rationalization to guide them and, though the situation is tense, they each get to take their time in making their decisions.  Director/Screenwriter Jamison M. LoCascio, along with co-screenwriter Adam Ambrosio, did a wonderful job casting their film and creating a feature that feels horrifying and truly set in reality . As someone who lives in New Jersey, I’ve been here for several different attacks on New York City over the decades and I always have thought, “What if something big did happen there?”  Sunset basically gave me the answer on what I should do.

While Pendleton helps sell the film, his character Julian mostly appears in the first scenes of the film where friends and family gather for a party.  It’s Patricia’s (Barbara Bleier) birthday and, along with her husband Henry (Liam Mitchell), she walks into their home to find a surprise birthday party waiting for her.  It’s a small, intimate occasion with Julian, Ayden (Juri Henley-Cohn), Chris (David Johnson), and Breyanna (Suzette Gunn) coming together to celebrate Patricia’s special day.

There is a lot more on the minds of these partygoers and the conversation soon turns to the inevitable.  Just days prior, across the country in Los Angeles, a nuclear bomb was detonated by terrorists.  The damage and loss of life was truly catastrophic.  There’s talk of what should be done to the terrorists once caught and several different points of view come out during this heated conversation.  It becomes too much for Patricia who soon just asks everyone to leave.

The characters all seem to have an interesting setup.  Patricia and Henry are an elderly couple who feels a massive strain on their relationship.  Patricia had a hip injury which leaves Henry having to help her plus everything that needs to be done around the house.  Chris lives with Henry and Patricia but isn’t their son.  He’s a strange guy, a bit of a manchild, and values the friendship he has with Henry plus the roof over his head.  Ayden and Breyanna are a new couple, with Ayden feeling grateful for all of the help Henry has given him through the years to put him on the right path in life.  Julian?  He seems to have gotten quite close to Patricia which is much to Henry’s chagrin.

The next day starts like any other day.  Patricia and Chris get up, have breakfast, and just converse about life.  Even with all of the mayhem going on across the country, they have to just keep going as most Americans would.  Henry takes Chris to do some work at a local neighbor’s house.  This is when the Emergency Broadcast System goes off on everyone’s radios, televisions, and phones.  The government issues a general evacuation of New York City and the surrounding areas due to a credible possibility of a nuclear missile attack on Manhattan.

The result of the broadcast makes many Americans in the area pack their bags, get in their cars, and leave for Philadelphia, Washington D.C., or anywhere that is basically away from New York City.  For our six characters, Sunset then becomes a character study on how each person feels about a true nuclear threat that could be just minutes, hours, or days away.

I can relate most to the character Ayden who wants to run home, pack up his stuff, grab Breyanna, and head right out the door.  It’s surprising that Breyanna has a very different thought process and the couple then has to come to a very real decision on what to do.  Henry discusses what he would like to do with Patricia, but finds that she is determined to not leave no matter how credible the threat.  This then poses a problem as Chris lives with them.  Will Chris leave without Henry and Patricia for safer soil or will he feel the need to stay with this fantastic older couple who took him in and treat him like a son?

Sunset is very well shot and never feels like an independent film shot on an independent film’s budget.  I will note that this film is a drama that is very dialogue heavy so if you are expecting something with action, car chases, and having to deal with nuclear fallout, this isn’t may not be the film for you.  It’s a character story that really looks at the true feelings and emotions that would come about if this scenario were ever to happen right here on American soil.  Speaking of which, I feel that Sunset is a perfect sister film to Chris Gorak’s brilliant 2006 film Right At Your Door which dealt with the aftermath of a dirty bomb exploding in Los Angeles and how it impacts not only the city, but one specific couple who are faced with the possibility of watching the other one die.  They have similar themes while dealing with very human problems.  I immediately wanted to watch Right At Your Door after watching Sunset and think both films together really show us the human spirit and what we are all capable of.

I was impressed by the acting of the entire cast.  Beyond Pendleton, I had never seen any of the actors in a film before.  The true standout of the film is David Johnson’s Chris.  Johnson is able to perfectly able to convey that his character is not truly right in the head.  He may be out there, he may not be the most stable person, but the character is fiercely loyal and a great person at heart.  Out of all the roles in this film I would feel that this character would be the most difficult to bring from script to screen and I thought Johnson did an outstanding job doing so.  I was not at all surprised to learn that Johnson won Best Lead Actor at the International Independent Film Awards.  It’s a much deserved win and I really hope that it leads to bigger roles for this talented actor.

Pendleton truly adds some gravitas to the film and while his role ends up being much smaller than the rest of the cast, he really brings a stoic and rational presence when faced with certain doom.  I know that I personally would pack up my things, get in the car with Pendleton, and drive somewhere far away from Midtown.  All the rest of the characters don’t feel the same and thus brings the tension in Sunset.  Pendleton’s performance feels a bit nuanced but, as the voice of reason, it is a role he was able to make quite memorable.

Sunset is a marvelous film about the human condition and how terrorism can truly continue to affect our lives.  This isn’t conveyed through fear but by talking things out between our characters.  It is what makes Sunset such a special film.  It’s quiet and powerful.  As the minutes tick away and the characters decide what they are going to do, you can’t help wonder if they will all survive, if the imminent attack warning was just wrong, or if they are all in for a horrible fate.  By the time you get to the end of Sunset you really care about these characters and hope that they all made the right decision.

Sunset is now available on digital, DVD, and VOD.  I highly recommend you check it out.  I have an interview with Austin Pendleton talking about Sunset, but if you are reading this that interview is not yet live.  Please check back shortly to read it.


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