One of the bleaker mainstream releases of 2020, Downhill is an American adaptation of Force Majeure, Ruben Ostlund’s breakthrough film of 2014, which details the crisis that unfolds when a family man runs away from his wife and children in the face of an avalanche at a European ski lodge. In this adaptation, Will Ferrell plays Pete Stanton, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Billie Stanton – a pretty promising combination, although their rapport often gets eaten up in the odd tragicomic tone of it all. As with the original, the screenplay details the days after Pete flees the avalanche, artfully delaying any direct discussion of the incident as the suspense and resentment builds, bringing the Stantons to the brink of destruction by the end.
Even more so than Force Majeure, Downhill outlines a whiteness crisis, since its emotional core is the fragility of the white married couple in an increasingly diversified world. From the outset, both Pete and Billie are presented in a depressive haze – all their body movements are slowed down, as they struggle to take the next step, and they’re always gazing off into the snowy glare, or middle distance, as if they’d rather be anywhere than right where they are. Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash continually cut back to stylised tableaux that position the Stantons in the midst of existential ennui, while the only time we hear a language other than English occurs directly after the avalanche incident, when Pete and Billie hold hands in the hotel corridor so that they’re not upstaged by an Indian-speaking couple ahead of them.
More specifically, Downhill traffics in two very pervasive tropes from recent cinema about whiteness in crisis. First, the dollhouse aesthetic that we see in Wes Anderson and Ari Aster recurs here in the twee dimensions of the ski lodge – especially the constant spectacle of cable cars shuttling inanely back and forth, like the picaresque apparatus of the white nuclear family reduced to a quaint relic of the past. Second, Downhill immerses us in the expansive alpine and polar landscapes – fields of whiteness – that have become so prominent in recent films about white crisis, often recalling the Antarctic scenes in Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
These snow fields play a critical role in the film, since the Stantons only really synergise on the slopes, when heading downhill. Hurtling towards the possibility of imminent disaster strengthens them as a family, while also presenting the nuclear family itself as a form of precarity – an institution that’s always on the verge of catastrophic combustion if not handled just right. Perhaps that’s why the avalanche is so traumatic to the Stantons, since it overtakes their own downhill momentum, revealing the disastrous landing that always, potentially, awaits them at the end of any family event, or any attempt to affirm their shared family life.
Unable to recapture their splendid skiing synergy in the wake of the avalanche, Pete and Billie spend most of the film treating the slopes as an experiment in how to be close to other people. We’re treated to a series of downhill trajectories that expand out to other options beyond the nuclear family, from singledom, to a couple without kids, to an open relationship, and – more distantly – to queerer modes of being and connecting. This alternation between the ski lodge and the slopes is the most dynamic aspect of the film, as Billie and Pete project all their hopes, dreams and fears onto the vivid white screens of the mountains above them.
This is also the most propulsive part of the film, taking us through a series of different combinations and configurations on the slopes – sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. Even here, though, it’s odd that a film with such an absurd premise, and with such great comic actors, is not really all that funny. Ferrell is clearly going for the offbeat sincerity of his more recent work, but the script doesn’t give him much room to move, meaning that the comic burden falls squarely on Louis-Dreyfus, who ends up carrying the script. She’s great at playing characters who can barely repress seething contempt and disgust – the Selina Meyer face – so she works brilliantly here, always trying to swallow her words like they’re vomit, and continually recomposing her face to try and process the idiocy and inanity of Pete’s actions.
Even Louis-Dreyfus can’t prevent the film’s pathos and seriousness feeling ridiculous by the end, however, since the banal truth here is that the Stantons are a genuinely boring couple, and would probably be doing themselves, and their kids, a favour, if they just went their separate ways. It’s that incessant and insatiable seriousness that aligns Downhill with recent films about white crisis – a seriousness so intense that is distracts Pete and Billie from any genuine pleasure in their kids, their friends, the resort or each other. Inevitably, that dampens your response as a viewer too, especially as this all feels so inconsequential beyond a certain point, necessitating a pretty dramatic deus ex machine to bring it all to a plausible conclusion.
In fact, Billie herself provides the deus ex machina, crafting a tableau for her sons and herself – for the whole family – in which she makes it look like Pete has rescued her on the slopes. Yet this whole display of masculine bravado makes the whole film seem even drabber and dourer, since it concedes that the whole mechanism of white middle-class respectability is built on a lie. Moreover, it cuts against any kind of broader sociability, as Pete puts all the other skiers at risk by climbing back uphill to “rescue” Billie as they dodge and weave around him. In the end, there’s no illusion here that the white family can command and arbitrate sociability like they once did, but no real interest in broader ideas of sociability or expanded ideas of family either. The family might have dissolved before the story begins, but the alternatives are painted with a pretty broad brush too, producing a film that doesn’t really believe in anything, perhaps explaining why it left such a bad taste for me, despite great leads.