Twenty-nine. That’s the number of penises I counted across the 108-minute runtime of Rotting in the Sun, director Sebastián Silva’s latest movie, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. At least, I think it was 29. I might have lost count, given that, at several points, there were so many dongs in one frame that it was practically a carol of the bells—or rather, balls.
This was to be expected. If you know anything about Silva’s work as a director, you know that he trades in dense, controversial, yet hilarious dark comedies. His films have pulled big stars like Ann Dowd, Kristen Wiig, and Michael Cera into his orbit, resulting in some of their most outlandish work to date. When Rotting in the Sun was announced, keen audiences knew they’d be in for something salacious.
“Raunchy” doesn’t quite begin to describe Rotting in the Sun, nor is it a good catch-all. Yes, there is a lot of nudity. And yes, there are real sex acts fully splayed out before the camera. But the parade of phalluses is an inseparable part of Rotting in the Sun; the gratuity is part of the fun. How many times have critics been able to say that a collection of cocks has resulted in mystery and intrigue?
The film follows Silva, playing a version of himself, low on life. He’s hovering just above rock bottom—uninspired, unmotivated, and unaroused—and contemplating suicide in Mexico City. At the behest of his manager, he takes a weekend vacation at a gay beach, where he ends up saving real-life influencer and writer, Jordan Firstman (also playing a loose version of himself), from drowning. As a fan of Silva’s work second and a narcissist first, Firstman begs Silva to work on a show he’s pitching to networks, claiming that the cosmos have brought them together.
There’s just one problem: Silva can’t stand Firstman. He’s giddy and grabby, far too self-absorbed to be taken seriously in Silva’s polar-opposite, dejected state of mind. But Silva needs money to finish the renovations he’s doing on the building he owns, which he plans on turning into an Airbnb for white tourists pouring into Mexico City. Reluctantly, Silva agrees to work with Firstman. That is, until Firstman arrives and Silva has gone missing, leaving his groundskeeper, Veronica (Cataline Saavedra), in a frenzied state of anxiety.
What comes next is both shocking and ballsy (pun very much intended). But the most surprising aspect of Rotting in the Sun isn’t how many hard dicks are knocking together at any one moment, but that it’s genuinely a blast despite all of that. It’s a sexy, searing satire of influencer culture and gay misanthropy, as well as a pseudo-murder mystery in one abrasive package (again, intended). This is the sleaziest fun you’ll have all year.
The further we plunge into the psychopathic depths of influencer culture, the more ripe it becomes for lambasting. Instagram is our new world order, and its reach is beyond sinister; more dystopian than George Orwell’s 1984 or Madonna’s “American Life” video—culture’s two greatest points of autocratic reference, bar none! To deny it is to deny the self. But throwing a stone at the world’s largest funhouse mirror will only shatter our already-fragile self-perception. What happens then?
Silva has to pick up the proverbial shards, and he meets Firstman with the glass still in his hands. He’s faced with two losing choices: slice up his own integrity or continue hacking into his own tortured-artist psyche. Firstman bombards Silva with artistic praise and propositions for sex from the moment they’re both on dry land, but it’s not the satisfaction Silva’s looking for. Instead, Silva consistently rebukes and belittles Firstman’s status as an influencer—famous for his “impressions” of inanimate objects, which have landed him a massive roster of celebrity friends (it’s rumored that his star-studded birthday party is where Marina Diamandis got COVID).
The only thing that could make Silva more despondent than subjecting himself to the presence of an influencer is having to use them for a cash grab. That’s exactly what happens when HBO execs deny Silva’s television pilot pitches, only to light up when he reluctantly mentions Firstman’s name. “That’s the guy who does the impression of banana bread’s publicist?!” they ask excitedly. Firstman, of course, is ecstatic for the chance to prove Silva wrong about him, and jumps at the opportunity to work together.
“The amount of time it takes to get your bearings is exactly when Rotting in the Sun takes a darkly hysterical turn.”
The film is slow to get rolling, which may turn off already skeptical viewers. The excess nudity in the first 40 minutes isn’t necessarily aggressive, but combined with the film’s offbeat nature and instant self-assuredness, it takes almost a third of the movie for viewers to assimilate. Luckily, the amount of time it takes to get your bearings is exactly when Rotting in the Sun takes a darkly hysterical turn. When Firstman shows up at Silva’s building with a Telfar bag and a suitcase full of sex toys to find the filmmaker missing, the central satire is allowed to explode in every direction to rousing results.
Firstman, whose biggest credit to date in front of the camera has been in the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, makes an ecstatic cannonball into this debaucherous parody of his online personality. He sends himself up without too much winking, self-assured and not at all incredulous about the fact that some may find him insufferable. As the influencer playing an influencer, he—and the film itself—might be the first to get the parody totally right. Once his lackadaisical Instagram stories about Silva’s disappearance become more sincere, he’s got to contend with his followers finding him unwatchable, which feels like grim fiction that could be all too real.
But the biggest surprise is Saavedra’s frantic Veronica, who is one botched Google Translate tête-à-tête with Firstman away from having a full breakdown. Veronica is the one person who knows Silva’s true whereabouts, and keeping the secret, while trying not to lose her job in his absence, could come at the cost of her sanity. Saavedra is wonderful, providing the necessary grounding factor to a film that spends so much of its runtime on dicks and drugs.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival has kept the nastiness scales firmly tipped at a 10. There have been stewing, semi-erotic thrillers; dastardly body horrors complete with leather dog leashes; and psycosexual power ploys. Still, nothing has been quite so brazen as Rotting in the Sun. But its plethora of penises cleverly disguises something much more amusing: a social satire that works without feeling arsed to make big, sweeping statements about the state of culture. We’re merely left to observe the hedonistic horrors, hoping that we never have to meet a similar fate.