Downhill Review: “Force Majeure” Turned Film Mineur

Downhill Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in Downhill. (Searchlight)

Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s remake of Ruben Östlund’s 2014 dramedy is a dragged-out rehash that oversimplifies its point—and then loses it.

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Force Majeure wasn’t one to spell itself out. It didn’t have a traditionally satisfying conclusion. Its morality was ambiguous at best. Hell, its most intimate moments approached its characters like an anthropologist looking at a family as a tribe. But while that informed the worldview of Ruben Östlund’s film, it also provided much of its style. Several scenes watched people from afar, the camera peeking through rooms only to see a fraction of the subjects in something close to a profile view.

It felt like a tease at first, the light wrapping around them and the settings holding them hostage. The central couple (Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) appeared to have more dimension from the outside looking in. When Östlund finally decided to face them head-on, though, they suddenly became shallow as can be. It was a quietly provocative statement, too, the idea that a person’s intricacies fade away once they get close enough. Fast-forward five and a half years and along comes a remake, and it’s shallow for the wrong reasons.

If nothing else, Downhill is a specific kind of shallow—flat in looks and in ideas and harmless all the while. Little about Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s third feature seems inherently necessary to begin with, but that isn’t the real issue here. It’s how dulled the premise becomes once it shows itself as unable to track its dynamics and points of view. The cast helps to an extent, but they can’t soften the feeling that someone took a two-hour movie, crammed it into 86 minutes, and made it feel like a short film stretched back out to two hours.

As for the setup? Well, it’s pretty much identical. Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) are a married couple on a ski trip in the Alps with their sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford). She’s focused on being present while he’s got his nose buried in his phone and they, despite appearing content enough, are an accident away from coming undone. And guess what? It comes pretty quickly. It’s when the four are having lunch that an avalanche floods the restaurant’s balcony, and while Billie stays with her family, Pete’s instinct is to run away.

A rift immediately forms between the two, but that isn’t so much because of who they are as people. Faxon & Rash’s script doesn’t do much to embellish these characters aside from two throwaway references to their personal lives. (His dad died recently. She’s an attorney. That’s about it.) And while this would be okay had the film given them each time to act and react to different issues, Downhill shoddily blends human drama with sanitized comic relief, making its character-driven scenes feel way more extraneous than they ought to.

Whereas Force Majeure let sequences breathe, Downhill hyperventilates. While Östlund’s movie felt real because it plumbed its grey areas before examining the dissonance between instinct and intimacy, this one makes the couple feel like the kinds of polarities that exist in a thought experiment. It posits itself as greyer than it is while unknowingly siding with Pete for almost the entire first half, whether it’s in how scenes are edited or the subjectivity that comes from the blocking. By the time both sides of the coin get their moments, they’re too detached to register.

The cast helps to an extent, but they can’t soften the feeling that someone took a two-hour movie, crammed it into 86 minutes, and made it feel like a short film stretched back out to two hours.

Instead, it’s up to Louis-Dreyfus to carry her scenes. She yet again shows herself to let the steam rise from her cool exterior (and really does her best with some of the lines the script gives her). Contrarily, Ferrell does forgettable work with what might be the most plainly underwritten role here. Supporting players yield varying results, however: Miranda Otto is the biggest emblem of Downhill’s hodgepodge tone with her part as a Eurotrash caricature, and a cameo from one Force Majeure actor just feels like throwing audiences a bone.

And yet, none of it is enough to distract from the stop-start, stop-start pacing that frays the arcs here. Pamela Martin & David Rennie over-edit scenes until the immediacy dissipates. Character reactions are often unclear even in the avalanche scene, and the timeline, ostensibly taking place over several days, softens the irascibility between Billie and Pete. Similar issues abound—Danny Cohen’s flat cinematography, oversimplified parent-child dynamics, an ending that feels all too sudden and almost incomplete. The movie may never crash and burn, but a lot of that is because it never gets to any heights to begin with.

Downhill is currently snowing in theaters nationwide.

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