Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Film Review: Downhill

The Will Ferrell/Julia Louis Dreyfus black comedy, Downhill, is an engaging, but not-terribly-funny sketch of a married couple with children on a ski vacation in Austria. The film delves into the complexity of a long term relationship that has been strained by each person's response to a "close call" in the mountains.

Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie Stanton (Julia Louis-Dryfus) are in the midst of a fun family vacation, skiing in the Alps. The pair start the film with normal family vacation issues -- the kids don't really want to be there, they're in the adult-oriented hotel instead of the kid-oriented one, etc. -- but all seems well until a fateful lunch.

The family is sitting on an open deck below the ski slope, when a charge explodes triggering a controlled avalanche. At first, the family watches as the snow slides down the mountain, but as it gets closer to their open-air restaurant, they panic. Pete grabs his phone and runs, whereas, Billie grabs her children and tries to cover them with her body. As a light powder cloud below the avalanche wafts over the deck, everyone discovers that they're fine, that there was nothing to worry about...

Downhill, an American remake of the 2014 Swedish Film Force Majeure, follows the couple as they both try to make sense of how Pete reacted to the avalanche. The fact that he ran and left his family behind, has a profound impact on Billie and the children, and a monumental impact on the couple's marriage.

Interestingly, this is the first film to explore a mountain version of something that has been talked about a lot recently in the climbing community, traumatic stress injuries. Laura McGladrey has been promoting her ideas about this widely for the last few years. She writes:

There is growing recognition of traumatic stress injuries in climbers, mountaineers, and rescuers who experience overwhelming events such as the death of a climbing partner or a near miss in an avalanche. When a climber watches a partner rappel off the end of the rope, their own life is forever changed.

Critical incidents and near misses share similar characteristics that overwhelm one’s response system, establish a connection to the injured person, or create a profound sense of helplessness.

This is exactly what happens in the film. And as such, we get to watch two of our favorite comic actors try to reconcile their feelings. The quality of the performances and the love we all share for these individuals in all of their roles, deeply impacts us. We want them to be successful in the recovery of their relationship, and we want them to avoid the pitfalls that appear as a result of their injuries.

Most of us have had something explode within a relationship, something that seemed like a small bomb at first, but then grew, like an avalanche, to consume it. This is only one of the metaphors that they embrace in the film. Indeed, Downhill is filled with images/metaphors that are meant to indicate where the couple is in relation to one another. When they're close, they stand next to one another brushing their teeth at the same sink, and when their relationship is damaged, they stand behind a bathroom partition with a sink on each side, brushing...

The script by Jim Rash and Jessie Armstrong does have a handful of comic moments built into it. For example, Miranda Otto as Lady Bobo is a hilariously inappropriate supporting character, that is both sex-crazed and oddly unaware of personal boundaries. But one clownish character doesn't really make the film feel like a rip-roaring comedy. The film feels a lot more like A Marriage Story, than any of these other two actors film or television vehicles. It's better to think of this as a "dramedy" instead of a "comedy."

It's always refreshing to see stories set in the places where many of us like to recreate. These types of stories help bring a film home. Occasionally, a mountain set-piece makes a story feel more real to outdoors people. That is certainly the case with, Downhill...

--Jason D. Martin

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