Sundance Review: DOWNHILL Humorously Tackles Male Mediocrity. Again.
Force Majeure, the 2014 Swedish film about a man who, when faced by a potentially deadly avalanche at a ski resort, runs out on his family (to their dismay), is an excruciating watch in all the right ways. 2020’s American remake Downhill is decidedly less excruciating. Opinions will vary.
As with any English language remake, there’s a perfectly valid conversation to be had about why it’s necessary when the original very good film already exists and is widely available to audiences who want to find them. There are also valid concerns about the naked cash grab element of taking other countries’ great cinema and repackaging it. Then there’s the question about how the final product fares in comparison to the original.
Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s (The Way Way Back, The Descendents) Downhill adheres closely to filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s original work from a plotting perspective. Will Ferrell’s Pete and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Billie have taken their two sons on a European skiing trip some eight months after Pete’s father has passed away. When a controlled avalanche briefly appears as though it might engulf the outdoor restaurant where the family is eating, Pete grabs his phone and cuts and runs. Moments later he returns and orders soup for the family. The genius in both Östlund’s original film and in this one is how specific this false alarm life or death situation is, and in how the fallout from the fathers’ actions plays out over the course of the rest of the trip. Just like in real life… husband and wife don’t hash it out immediately. There are kids around, they’re surrounded by other tourists, they’re connecting with other folks at the resort. Life happens and husband and wife spin the events around in their own heads and come to very differing conclusions. Pete’s justifications and rationalizations are a fantastic glimpse into insecure masculinity and mediocrity. Billie’s abject realization of her husband’s self-absorption results in her own process of how to proceed with the life they’ve built. There’s an almost Marriage Story vibe of cataloging a series of small cuts playing out as the practicalities of a family ski trip continue on… until things just bubble over.
Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus put in great work here, with Louis-Dreyfus serving as a producer as well. (A comment was made by Rash & Faxon that she was a main driver of this project). Ferrell is king when it comes to portraying man-children, and Downhill gives him plenty of meat to chew on both comedically and dramatically. But it’s Louis-Dreyfus’ Billie who feels like the lead character here, and she truly shines as the matriarch who must parent her own husband twice as hard as she must parent her teenage boys. Billie gets her own screentime, however, and feels fleshed out as a human being, not exclusively written as a counterpoint to her husband and sons.
I was skeptical about Downhill as a fan of the original film. And there’s no question that some of the hardest edges are trimmed from Force Majeure. The comedy in that film is so cringe-inducing and squirmy as to be a go-to example for its unique brand of humor. You’re laughing because you want to crawl out of your skin and/or do anything possible to escape some of the conversations that are being had. But Östlund is merciless, holding us in moments that lay bare the embarrassment and tension. While Downhill doesn’t go that hard, it does have several aces up its sleeve. For one thing, the stars absolutely anchor the project, and their comedic chemistry is undeniable. Pitting these two against one another in this situation results in some good laughs even if the awkward moments are more abbreviated. But there’s another thing Downhill has going for it: it clocks in at under 90 minutes in length. These days, it’s a true gift when a film is focused enough to give you a laser focus on its core ideas and characters and just… get in and get out. There’s very little fat on Downhill, and that’s highly appreciated. The cast beyond the core family are also major highlights. A sequence with Game Of Thrones’ Kristopher Hivju (who played a different role in the original film) is fantastic. He’s the ski resort official to whom Billie and Pete report their incident as a safety concern. His dismissal of their concerns is not only funny, but gives Downhill a chance to poke fun at its own “American-ness”. Then there’s the absolute scene-stealing Miranda Otto (The Lord Of The Rings). Otto’s filter-less resort host is brazenly crass and sexual and her conversations with Billie about pleasure and life-philosophy are both side-splitting and have significant impact on Billie’s arc.
There’s no doubt that Downhill closely mirrors its Swedish original and spins the product in a more American direction. But the question then becomes whether the remake feels lazy, or like a studio cash grab. I would argue that the creatives behind Downhill very clearly worked hard to make a good film that doesn’t totally coast on the qualities of what came before. It’s also likely (that many of us cinephiles struggle with) that an English language telling of this tale with a couple of beloved comedy titans in leading roles will not only reach exponentially more people around the world, but will almost certainly create a larger audience for even the original film itself, even if just out of casual curiosity.