Downhill (2020)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Run Time
1 hour and 26 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★3.5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

The word of the Lord came to me:  Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?

Ezekiel 34:1-2
Pete and Billie plan their day at an Alpine ski resort. (c) Searchlight Pictures

Although the title of co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s remake of a Scandinavian film refers to the type of skiing an American family vacationing in the Alps is engaged in, it could also refer to the direction in which the couple’s marriage seems to be headed. For those who have seen the Oscar-nominated Marriage Story, Downhill could be the prelude to a similar story. Even as the  American couple Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) are checking into a fancy resort/hotel Pete is absorbed in his cellphone.

Pete’s self-absorption is further borne out by the fact that he never considered his children when making reservations. When the adults note that they see no other children around, a local informs them that the absence of children is by design, that a family-oriented resort is just 20 minutes away.

The up to now dark streak running beneath the surface abruptly appears when the family is eating lunch out on the veranda and they hear a loud bang. Along with the other diners they look up and see clouds of snow rushing down the mountainside. “It is a controlled avalanche,” someone informs them. At first everyone regards it as a curious spectacle, but as the snow keeps rushing toward them, some express fright, and as the cloud begins to envelope them, people jump up in terror, overturning some of the tables and chairs in their panicked flight. Billie enfolds the two boys sitting on either side of her in her arms as the screen turns white from the snow cloud. After a few moments the screen clears, and we can see the three of them, alone. Pete’s chair is empty, and he is nowhere to be seen. Within a few minutes he rejoins them, sits down nervously—and orders their soup, as if what has just happened was of no consequence.

Pete may try to pass off his running away as of no consequence, but the incident will hang over the rest of their stay like a dark cloud, refusing to go away. His own absorption in his phone, on which he exchanges text messages with his best friend at work, who is also vacationing in Europe with his current girlfriend, leads him to lie to Billie and to his inviting the couple to join them, despite Billie’s preference to be alone with the boys. In the awkward scene when the younger couple joins them, Pete and Billie get into an argument over his abandonment. He cannot admit that he did so, trying to claim that each of them had an equally valid view of the incident. This so upsets Billie that, to the horror of the other three, Billie brings in from their bedroom their two sons who very reluctantly back their mother’s version, thus destroying any possibility of salvaging the evening with their guests. The couple sit through this tirade in stunned silence.

The various attempts to have fun on the slopes fall flat, so the family agrees to give up skiing for other activities. Billie decides she wants a “solo” day, so Pete tries to make up what probably has been years of neglect by taking the boys to a children’s “fun park” where they soon become so bored that he agrees to return to their lodging so the boys can have “screen time” without him. Meanwhile, during her solo day Billie becomes attached to a young ski instructor who, when they pause at a warm shelter, gives her tired legs a message that promises even more pleasure should she agree. However, the film does not go in that direction, with Pete eventually winning in her eyes a measure of redemption, though whether or not this is really satisfying, you can decide.

Not having seen Swedish Ruben Östlund’s original Force Majeure, I cannot compare the two, as other critics have. But I can agree that this is not only a dark, but very uncomfortable comedy. The film really belongs to Julie Louis-Dreyfus, who is the emotional center of this family. The comedy is suffused with the tragic when she tries to describe her trauma later on, “I throw my arms around my children and I just wait … I wait for us to die together.” The actress displays no trace of humor in her delivery, her every gesture and tone of voice perfectly portraying a mother’s helpless anguish in not being able to protect her children.

Will Farrell also sets aside any trace of his usual goofiness as he at last soberly accepts the truth that he had acted cowardly at the moment when his family needed him the most. He was very much like the “shepherds of Israel,” denounced by the prophet Ezekiel, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”

This is a good film for married couples to discuss, but be forewarned, it is not one for those wanting just a night out. I couldn’t agree more with the critic who concluded, “It’s a genuinely unnerving little movie.”

This review will be in the March issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

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