Film Review – Downhill
Downhill (2020) is a remake of the Swedish Force Majeure (2014). Of all the films that could have had an American retelling, Force Majeure would not have been the first one to come to mind. Part of the reasoning is that nearly half the dialogue is spoken in English. For those of you that don’t like reading subtitles (shame on you!), that film would have a been a good gateway to the possibilities of international moviegoing. But here we are, with Downhill being a fairly close adaptation of its predecessor.
Co-directed and co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (with Jesse Armstrong contributing on the screenplay), the story follows an American family during a ski vacation high up in the Alps. We learn that Pete (Will Ferrell) had recently lost his father, and his wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) thought the outing would be a good way to help him move on. Things start off well – with Pete, Billie and their two sons (Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford) skiing down the slopes all together.
Things take a turn when – while the family eats an outdoor breakfast – a controlled explosion causes an avalanche to hurtle towards their location. Awe soon turns into worry and then panic as the avalanche comes closer to them. Just as the avalanche crashes up against the side of the building, everyone on the balcony braces for impact, except for Pete. While Billie and the kids grab each other and get down, Pete stands up, grabs his phone, and runs away. Luckily, the avalanche quickly dissipates, leaving only a light snow covering over tables and chairs. But as nerves start to calm down, questions arise over why Pete ran away instead of staying with his family.
This is a classic “What would you do?” scenario. Most people would probably say that they would’ve stayed with their family – that’s the logical answer. But in a high intensity situation, where anxiety and fear can overwhelm a person, who knows what they are liable to do. That’s the question that plagues Pete and Billie in the days following the avalanche. Tensions mount as Pete’s insistence that he did nothing wrong creates a widening gap between him and his family. What started as a family outing turns into stories of individuals, to the point where Pete and Billie can’t have genial conversations with other people without emotions flaring up.
Some of the better scenes feature Pete and Billie slowly losing their composure as they recount the avalanche from their own perspective. The uncomfortable tension creates an awkwardly funny atmosphere. I can see why the production casted Will Ferrell in this role. One of Ferrell’s funnier sketches from Saturday Night Live involved a passive aggressive family airing out their problems over dinner. There is a lot of that going on with Downhill, although not to the same exaggerated extreme. The built-up hostility is played at a quieter level, which makes it more intense. The simple act of brushing teeth has the volatility of a ticking time bomb. The cinematography (Danny Cohen) heightens this by literally having Pete and Billie stand on opposite sides of the bathroom, with the mirror visually splitting them apart.
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are both good when they are working together. Their comedic backgrounds help amplify the funnier sequences. Both also handle the dramatic moments effectively as well, with Louis-Dreyfus taking the spotlight as Billie’s anger toward Pete escalates. When they are apart, however, the narrative sags as it comes up with things for them to do. When Pete has a drunken episode with friend Zach (Zach Woods), the effect doesn’t add up to much. Even worse is Billie’s short rendezvous with ski instructor Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti). Their interaction has a sitcom-level tone that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the material.
What made Force Majeure such a success is how it navigated the complexities of marriage – the dynamics of being linked with another person and how one acts within the expectations of being a spouse, all while juggling the responsibilities of being a good role model as a parent. Downhill does touch on these themes but plays it far more for laughs as opposed to a deep dive examination of human relationships. Charlotte (Miranda Otto) who operates as a guide for Pete and Billie, is such an over the top caricature that she belongs in a completely different movie. Any legitimate advice she gives falls on deaf ears because of how big the character is portrayed.
Downhill does have some good pieces, and aesthetically, the snowcapped mountain range is so beautiful that it looks straight out of a postcard. But if you’re looking for something a little more than a pretty good comedy/drama, you might come away slightly disappointed. It’s a bit ironic that for this Valentine’s Day weekend, we get a movie about a couple on the verge of falling apart.