“Downhill”: Film Review | Sundance 2020

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in the film DOWNHILL. Photo by Jaap Buitendijk. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Julia Louis-Dreyfus & Will Ferrell in a shot from Downhill; photo courtesy

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus star as a couple whose marriage is destabilized by a near-disaster in an American remake of the 2014 award-winning Swedish Hitchcockian thriller, Force Majeure, that mostly stays true to the original but goes “downhill” fairly quick.

In 2014, Ruben Ostlund’s psychological family thriller drama (in that order) Force Majeure debuted to critical acclaimed along the festival circuit and picked up various award nominations along the way. Centering around a husband and wife whose relationship starts cracking apart after he abandons her and their kids during a dangerous avalanche was so finely calibrated and put together that when I heard an American remake was on the horizons I knew that it would be as disastrous as the avalanche that causes the cracks. Ostlund’s masterpiece was so finetuned and tightly interwoven that it only seemed like an international filmmaker could pull it off by adding the right of comedy and dark drama.

Enter true American powers of comedy Julia Louis-Dreyfus (as the wife) and a miscast Will Ferrell (as the husband) in a truly American remake directed and co-written by Academy Award winning screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (which they also co-wrote with Veep and Succession‘s Jesse Armstrong). The biggest issue the co-directors got wrong from the start was making the film in a comedy-of-awkwardness vein that’s honestly only partially funny in the context of the plot. With the original, Ostlund perfectly balances bites of black humor but also the unease of the icy aftershocks that cut deep within the marriage while exposing various things like the fragility of masculinity and the reassuring illusions of paterfamilias as protector. With this remake, it plays at an attempt of being like “National Lampoon’s Ski-Lift Vacation” with a lot of lark of martial discord. The only thing besides the plot that it has with the original is the unsettling comedy that the writers have concocted.

In both the original film and this remake, the mood throughout is heavy with plenty of unspoken tension and how that represents a subtle breakdown of a family bond accompanied with 21st century angst (Ferrell’s character is addicted to his phone). The main event, or inciting incident to use screenwriter terminology, is when Pete (Ferrell), Billie (JLD) and their boys are having lunch on the deck of a restaurant in a ski resort in Austria when they hear a distant explosion – one of the attempts at controlling avalanches from happening – but it goes very wrong, very quick. Instead of shielding his family, Pete makes a run for it, leaving Billie to fend for her and her children’s lives. Sounds interesting, right?

It’s that split second action – the incarnation of selfishness and fear-driven in the contemporary middle-class male – that sets Pandora’s box open and plenty of tension aflame. Ferrell’s irritation comes out without his usual comic marks and it’s honestly a thrilling thing to behold. Yet you can’t help but see the Ferrell that we are accustomed to – the funny, hilarious and outright unpredictable comedian. It works for him as a role since it’s quite unpredictable when he is going to blow up or go into a dramatic act yet it just feels weird watching him display his comedic chops against another star comedienne.

JLD is the beating heart of the film. Unlike what we are used to from a JLD film, she effectively downplays the humor of scenes and commits to the trauma that her character is going through. She gives a wry, funny and possess performance as a wife and mother who is very unhappy with everything that she has. At the end of the day, does everything get resolved in Downhill? I would say yes and no. There are definitely plenty of up-the-slopes battles in the narrative and character acts and the film will have an up hill battle in finding an audience. And for those that seek it out for the stars or directors, it’s a nice confection. But for those seeking it out because of their knowledge of the original – I urge you to steer clear of this remake or watch it with fresh eyes.

JAKKAWI: C-

“Downhill” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres Category. At press time, Searchlight Pictures previously had the distribution rights to the film for a Valentines Day premiere.

Trailer for Downhill; video courtesy of YouTube and Searchlight Pictures

Director: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.
Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.
Based on: Force Majeure by Ruben Ostlund (Sweden)
Music by: Volker Bertelmann.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Production: Likely Story.
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures.
With: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Mirando Otto, Kristofer Hivju, Zach Woods, Zoe Chao.

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