Downhill (2020)

Starring: Will Ferrell, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and Zach Woods
Grade: F

Do you like skiing and/or crumbling marriages? Well, boy do I have a movie for you!


The Stanton Family is vacationing at a ski resort in Ischgl, Austria. There’s Pete, his wife Billie (Dreyfus), and their two sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford). Just to get us used to this family’s contentious relationship off the bat, we see how difficult they make a few family photos together, as they argue in their ski gear on a mountain while the Austrian photographer tries to snap some shots of them.

Soon after, they get back to the resort. Billie notices there aren’t any kids there, but Pete passes it off as a scheduling thing. Once they get into the hotel lobby, Billie sees Pete vigorously texting, with Pete saying it’s his co-worker and friend Zach (Woods) who just so happens to be vacationing in Europe at the same time with his girlfriend Rosie (ZoĆ« Chao). Currently, those two are in Amsterdam, and Pete seems to really admire Zach’s Instagram picture he posted, reading off the hashtags like the man wrote a novel. This prompts Billie to make fun of it, and Pete agrees with her even though he’s clearly lying. Billie also asks Pete to put his phone away, so they can just be there in the present, and he complies. They go to speak with the concierge Charlotte (Miranda Otto) who’s awkward and rude. This is where they find out that this ski resort doesn’t have any children and it thrives on more adult activities such as sitting in a sauna naked, which she insists they do at some point. Later, the Stanton Family settle into their hotel room. The boys are already fighting in their room, but it’s pretty much expected. Billie walks into the master bedroom and sees Pete texting Zach again. He quickly puts his phone to the side and says Zach was the one texting him and asking how the trip was. He changes the conversation to show Billie that he found his deceased father’s winter hat and he brought it, so he can be on the slopes with them in spirit. He tries to apologize for his recent behavior, but Billie understands and says this is why they’re here. They have a good to the night too.

Obviously, a good meal and shower sex goes a long way.

In the morning, the underlying tension between Billie’s know-it-all ways can be seen through the body language of Pete. She puts stickers all over the helmets of the family so they don’t lose each other in the snow, and she tells Pete to wear his father’s hat under the helmet, so they can find him. He’s annoyed with this because he can’t fit his hat under the helmet, forcing him to leave it behind. When they ski together as a family, there’s also some minor annoyances as Emerson skis supremely slow, and it forces them to stop and wait for him to catch up. Later that day, they all have lunch at an outside restaurant on a balcony, and Billie suggests they just get soup. This way they can have pastries around 4PM and still be hungry for dinner. Ignoring this, Pete checks out the map of the resort and brings up how they should ski “The Beast”, a much tougher mountain. As they start to discuss the logistics of attempting something potentially as challenging as this, a small avalanche occurs just outside of the resort. Once it hits the balcony of where the restaurant is located, Pete grabs his phone from the table and runs to safety. At the same time, Billie’s immediate response was to protect Emerson and Finn once the snow came. Thankfully, the avalanche didn’t turn out to be anything serious or life-threatening, as everyone turned out to be fine and this sometimes happens in this area. However, things are now different between Pete and his family, as they saw firsthand how he treated them in the face of danger. It’s an awkward scene, and Pete sits back down with them, acts like everything is cool, and orders soup.

Following some more skiing and a silent elevator ride, the family returns some of their gear for the day. Pete puts his stuff back and Emerson is still putting some stuff on a shelf when a stranger pushes a rolling shelf backwards into his. From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like this action could either crush or trap Emerson in-between the two aisles, so Pete steps in and yells at the guy for it. Considering what happened earlier in the day though, it seems like he was trying to make up for what happened. That night, Pete and Billie get ready to go out but when they try to share the same mirror to get cleaned up, Billie asks for him to use the other one. He does, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that things are not okay between them at the moment. The two go out together to the resort restaurant and run into Charlotte, who has them come over to sit with her just as Billie starts to bring up the avalanche incident. She continues with her weird conversations and the like and her friend Charlie (Alex Macqueen) joins them. He came in Sunday, and she’s been banging him on the side. As they talk, Billie very clearly mouths to Pete that she wants to leave, but he continues the conversation seeing this. They ask Pete and Billie how their day was, and Pete talks it up like it was amazing, prompting an agitated Billie to bring up the avalanche. Anytime she gets close to revealing Pete’s actions though, he changes the subject and downplays the danger of the situation. Then, he brings up how their family has been through a lot emotionally and how his dad passed away eight months ago. Next, he goes on this spiel about how his father was a travel agent who never went anywhere, with all of his knowledge just coming from research, and how he had a good friend named Hughie.

As he talks about the importance of living for the moment, Charlotte sees Billie’s distraught face and suggests they still report the incident to resort safety, and she agrees. The next day, they go to resort safety to make their complaint, but the guy in charge named Michel (Kristofer Hivju) thinks everything was handled perfectly and that it was indeed a “controlled avalanche”. As they argue, Pete doesn’t back up Billie at all and admits he saw a sign with a warning about the scenario when Michel brings it up. The night ends in another awkward whimper between the two. Before he goes to sleep, Pete once again scrolls through Zach’s Instagram posts, seemingly wishing his life to be like Zach’s. The next morning, Pete and Billie oversleep and arrive late to their heli-skiing appointment that Pete set up. Because of this, they have to miss breakfast entirely. As the helicopter is getting ready, Emerson says he’s missing a glove, so Finn calls him stupid. Billie steps in and forces Finn to apologize as the worker tells them they have to get on the helicopter immediately in case of a weather change. Pete tries to have the kids forget about it because he spent $2,000 on this specific activity, but Billie flips out on him for trying to force the issue when there are so many problems at once that need to be resolved. As the helicopter takes off without them, Billie finds Emerson’s glove by the tire of their car and gives it to him. Afterwards, they all have a late breakfast. Pete brings up how they still have some time to do stuff if they hurry up and eat, but Billie says they’re going to cut their losses for today and relax for a bit. This will also allow her and Pete to have some time together. Lying through his teeth, Pete says he loves the idea.

Back in the room, Billie plays cards with the boys. Meanwhile, Pete texts Zach and tells him to come to dinner tonight with him and Billie since he’s in the area. That night, Billie is particularly perturbed at Zach and Rosie’s appearance at their hotel and argues with Pete in private when she puts the boys to bed. Unbeknownst to them, the walls are thin. Zach and Rosie are sitting in the living room, and they can hear most of the argument, with Billie making it clear she doesn’t know them and Pete saying they called ahead of time, not even mentioning the fact that he is the one who insisted on having them stop in. The four sit in the living room and talk, with Zach and Rosie talking about how they have visited three countries in four days, they did shrooms, how they don’t want kids, and how they want to live for each other. This is when an enamored Pete compliments their hashtags, specifically pointing out “#NoAgenda” as a phrase him and Billie “love”. Zach thanks him and brings up how their motto of not having an agenda led them there that night because Pete was the one who reached out. This incenses Billie because now she knows Pete caused this unwanted visit. Zach changes the subject to ask how their vacation has been and Pete acts like everything has been cool. Of course, Billie has had enough and tells Zach and Rosie every last detail of the avalanche story. This includes Pete running off with his phone when they all thought they were going to die, and she gets very emotional as she talks about it. Zach tries to change the subject, but Pete tries to defend himself by saying it’s impossible to run in ski boots, how he didn’t leave them to die, and that he saw the events that happened differently. Then, he has the audacity to argue that he saw they were okay and then ran to get help.

Everyone in the room realizes this is a total contradiction, and Billie exits the room in anger because it’s obvious at this point that Pete is trying to lie to cover for his monumental fuck-up. Billie re-enters the living room and brings Emerson and Finn with her, asking them to recall the incident for Zach and Rosie as they saw it. They both admit Pete ran away. Once they go back to their room, Pete gets mad Billie brought them into it and how she always has a need to be right. Billie fires back with the fact that she was right that he left his family.

The Stanton Family is in shambles. Unfortunately, they still have a few more days left in this vacation.

My Thoughts:

Downhill is technically a remake of highly acclaimed Swedish film Force Majeure. For the record, I have not seen Force Majeure, but just by viewing America’s take on the black comedy, I can just tell we did it much worse.

Very rarely will I see a movie and just think nothing about it once it’s over. When you watch a good or great movie, you know it, right? You’re still thinking about the film days later and want to shower the film with compliments, while discussing all the aspects that made you enjoy the experience. Maybe when you see the title somewhere else, happy memories come with it and you think about how great it was. Even with bad films, the discussion afterwards tends to be similar but in the opposite direction. This is mostly because the discourse surrounding your viewing experience gets to be entertaining, as it’s very fun saying things like, “What the hell were they thinking?”. Sometimes, you get a “middle ground” type of movie that showed flashes of potential but didn’t quite reach the level it was trying to go for. With this, you bring up suggestions to yourself and to others on how it could have been fixed. Sure, it’s a moot point, but it’s fun talking about the possibilities because we just like speaking about cinema and everything that encompasses it. Then, there’s the purgatorial type of movie that does absolutely nothing for you. When it’s over, it’s dead and gone and you don’t understand what the point was. You stare in silence and think to yourself how you may have wasted an hour and a half of your time. Well, Downhill is one of those movies that fits into this rare category. It’s so far on the other end of the spectrum that it can be categorized as nothing. It’s not terrible, it’s just nothing. It does so little from an entertainment perspective that you walk out of the experience getting nothing from it.

If anything, that’s almost worse than being an all-around bad film.

The whole story is set up around the controlled avalanche at the ski resort and the Stanton Family reacting the way they did. Billie reacts like a mother should. She sees what’s happening and immediately goes to protect her children. Despite being the father, Pete’s first instincts are to grab his phone and run away, leaving his family behind. This is an interesting premise because of the number of questions surrounding Pete’s fate. How does a father and husband recover from such an event like this? How does he regain his family’s trust and love when they saw firsthand how he would react in the face of danger? How does Pete make it clear to Billie that they still love each other when they were already having problems before this event occurred? With a golden premise like this, the screenplay has a lot of expectations to live up to because of the severity of this moment in the first act. The aftermath of such an event is more important than anything because the entire film’s trajectory revolves around it. Sadly, the idea is never fully capitalized on and never reaches the height of this movie-defining scene. It just trots along and avoids the tougher conversations until much later in the film. By then though, it’s too late to save the story. Most of the movie consists of awkward glances between Billie and Pete, Pete walking around the fact that he managed a generational fuck-up and is downplaying the reality of it to save face, and when it finally comes down to Billie having her moment of calling Pete out for what he did, it’s not as satisfying as you’d like it to be.

Can you imagine this? The whole movie is based off of this singular action, and it leads to two semi-decent arguments. That’s it. That’s the entire film. Oh, and there’s a scene where Julia-Louis Dreyfus masturbates in a public bathroom.

Considering the average material, Dreyfus does a pretty good job with what was given to her. You can feel the rage boiling inside as she watches Pete avoid any emotional conversation or admit the truth of what happened. Will Ferrell fits the humorous moment of him leaving his family in the dust when the avalanche hits and he plays dejected decently well, but when it came down to the ever-important scenes of arguing with his wife over the details of what happened or speaking from the heart, he tries to dip a little bit into his bag of comic acting, and it never fits the moment. It doesn’t necessarily take over, but you can see it creep into the scene here and there like when he’s just trying to blatantly lie in front of Zach and Rosie on his side of the story. In a movie like this, it just doesn’t work, and Ferrell becomes more and more unlikable as time moves on within the story. This is why making a great black comedy is as difficult as it is. Downhill never finds enough humor in the situation to hook us because the actions of Pete are so unforgivable, he never recovers. He’s such a jerkoff that Billie’s “Solo day” where she kisses another guy and states the crucial and telling line, “Don’t apologize. I did exactly what I wanted to do” is completely justified. This should tell you something about the characterization of Pete. Even in the scenes where Ferrell is trying his best to apologize and admit his faults, I just didn’t buy it. It was never sincere enough because Ferrell doesn’t have it in him. To begin with, Pete was already somewhat removed from his wife and family and never felt as close to them as Billie does. Considering this, he was already leaning towards one end of the spectrum in the eyes of the audience. After he leaves them to die essentially, the character never recovers. If anything, he works even harder to make us not like him even more.

Showcasing the purest form of “In vino veritas”, he gets drunk with Zach at one point, and he privately talks about how much he loves his family but flat-out says “…but you can’t forget about you“, showing his selfishness even in a drunken state. To his very core, he shows us why he’s not deserving of redemption. For a non-villain and more of a flawed main character, it’s strange that I can’t think of a single redeeming trait for him, but it’s the truth.

Pete tries to bring Zach and Rosie along with them even though he knows Billie won’t like it, he took them to an adult ski resort that isn’t kid-friendly and doesn’t give a shit either because he’s focused on his own fun, he’s caught lying on a consistent basis, and he doesn’t seem fit or fond of being a dad. He’s genuinely envious of the free life Zach lives with his girlfriend and seems annoyed with his sons on a consistent basis, despite “playing” father. Then, he’s surprised he can’t win his family back? If you can’t even write it in the screenplay believably, how is the audience supposed to be won back over? Furthering the frustration regarding Pete, he avoids talking to Billie about what happened for a majority of the movie. If he made any shred of an attempt to talk about things the day it happened and she was angry and wanted to avoid it, maybe we would’ve given him another chance. However, he is the one who thought to himself, “Maybe, they just won’t notice, and I can lie myself out of this one”. When you think about it, if they all would have avoided talking about what happened that day, chances are Pete would have never acknowledged it himself. This is the issue. Even when it’s finally brought up in the living room scene, Pete tries to gaslight Billie in front of company and say that he saw his actions differently, digging his hole further. Again, how do you come back from this, especially when you’re trying to hide your remorse? Doubling down and making it seem like your wife, who was completely in the right, was in the wrong just makes it even worse.

There needed to be more direct dialogue for us to care about this relationship, so we actually want it to be salvaged. Pete is a sad sack of shit who looks like he’d much rather be alone than with family. Billie isn’t exactly a peach either, as her constant nagging, planning, and thinking anything she says is the better idea would get on anyone’s nerves. Though we want the payoff argument regarding the avalanche, it’s very obvious that these two needed to have a heart-to-heart conversation way before this event. Where is the discussion between the two that allows us to take a deep dive into the relationship and see the root of the problems between them? Obviously, it’s much more than what we see. Okay, Pete’s dad did pass away eight months ago. No one is arguing that the grieving process has been rough for him, but did anyone else think that it wasn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things? If Pete broke down over it at some point, I would see how his internal struggle could boil over into his family life as he bottles up his emotions. However, with the way things play out, it seems like he wants to use it as more of an excuse if anything. What is really eating at these two? What are we missing that led them to this much-needed vacation? I needed more venom between the two. There needs to be more direct conversations being had, especially when it becomes warranted following Pete’s actions. Sadly, we only get glimpses of it. Anytime the dialogue gets a tinge juicier, the scene is cut short, and they argue it being the wrong time or they are interrupted for whatever reason. A prime example would be the hallway argument where Pete gets Billie alone and admits he was a selfish coward, and her retelling of the event was entirely accurate. Of course, this is when Billie hits us with the biting line that in a way, shows the root of the problem when looking at the final product as a whole in “This is what you say four days ago!”.

Finally, we get to see her dig in, and Dreyfus revels in this key scene. Pointing out how he was making it sound like it was her fault, she ends it with the emotional statement about how she didn’t want Pete to stop the avalanche, she just wanted him to survive one with them. It’s very good, but it just scratches the surface on what the story is begging for. These are the important arguments they need to have, but they are few and far between. There needed to be a scene where they air out their grievances to each other and decide if they should work things out and become stronger as a result or cut their losses entirely and split. I’m not overreacting either. After seeing these two interact, this had to be the ultimatum they faced at some point. They had the chance in the climax with Billie faking the injury for Pete to look like a hero again for his kids, but the conversation isn’t long enough, and it doesn’t feel as triumphant as it should. Again, there isn’t a strong enough case for worthy redemption regarding Pete. This is why the rest of the film after the avalanche moment just wanders aimlessly and nothing is definitive regarding the character arcs or certain plot developments. Because of the weak third act that doesn’t definitively answer any of the questions we have, the viewer is already left wondering why this felt like the right way to end things on. Then, it still manages to get worse. The non-finish of the climax leads to an ending that only yields more questions than answers because of its lack of commitment to the scene before it. It’s humorous in a way, but it undoes the already dogshit job they did with the second half of the movie and makes the muddied climax even less conclusive than it already was.

Honestly, it all boils down to this. From start to finish, I just kept asking myself, “What are they even trying to say with this movie? What is the message? What are they trying to accomplish with a story like this?”. To this very day, I still have no clue.

For a black comedy, it’s not dark enough, and there’s a lot left to be desired on the comedic side of things. The only scene played up straight for humor was the “resort safety” scene, but it only incensed me watching it unfold. If this is supposed to be the funniest scene of the movie, you’re in trouble. In addition, it just made me hate Will Ferrell’s character even more. All around, Downhill is a middling experience with very few high points other than the beautiful locations filmed in Austria, the quirky and inquisitive score, and a decent performance by Julia-Louis Dreyfus. Still, it’s nothing to write home about or recommend. Going along with the fact that the film underdelivers on scenes that should’ve been their bread and butter, Downhill is a failure on all accounts.

The quote “Every day is all we have” stayed with me though. As spoken by Pete somewhat insincerely, it’s a way of explaining how important each day is and how we should try and make the most of it. It’s true. After watching this film, I realized he’s right. If every day is important, I can’t waste my time watching movies like Downhill anymore.

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