The trouble with “Downhill,” the remake of Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” isn’t that it is a remake.
Co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are more than up to the challenge of creating an original story inspired by Östlund’s situational dark comedy with their co-writer Jesse Armstrong, right down to the avalanche that starts the tides of change for our characters.
The Staunton’s are on a ski trip in the Alps. Pete (Will Farrell) is as self-absorbed at they come, paying very little attention to his family. Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is compensating for Pete’s absence by being very demanding.
This leads to an awkwardly satisfying journey in which Billie seeks to find her firm footing in an ever-growing avalanche of emotion, courtesy of Miranda Otto’s vulgar Charlotte, the innkeeper of the resort the Staunton’s are staying.
Faxon and Rash use nearly as many visual cues to convey the growing distance between Billie and Pete, taking it to the next level with austere greys and diminutive lighting. Danny Cohen’s stark, yet brilliant cinematography is chock full of unconventional shots allowing us to visually explore the relationship between Billie and Pete. We spend more time with the couple in their en suite bathroom than we probably should, but the visual cues do far more here to suggest the couple’s state of mind rather than using dialogue to convey the same.
Speaking of cues, Volker Bertelmann’s score uses a repeating theme reminiscent of Östlund’s use of “Four Seasons.” It is tonally and distinctively different enough to signal the change that must and will inevitably happen to Billie and Pete.
Faxon and Rash also created a brilliant connection to the original film through Kristofer Hivju’s cameo as the chief of the mountain’s snow operations. A solid, witty banter between he and Billie in which she tries to argue that the resort caused the avalanche without warning, defines this interaction. Pete just sits on the sidelines, watching his lawyer wife handle everything.
“Downhill” doesn’t hold back any punches during the centerpiece of the film, the argument in which Billie finally calls Pete out for running away from his family during the emergency. The dialogue and the performances are pitch perfect, snearing and snarking at each other.
The centerpiece argument is where the narrative diverges. Faxon and Rash use the key elements in “Force Majeure” to tell an updated story, but the characterizations don’t always play as well with those elements as they did in the original. That’s not to say that what Faxon and Rash created isn’t solid on its own.
“Downhill” is Billie’s journey and a demure Farrell is not something we’re used to seeing. His dramatic side is perhaps a bit overdone with some purpose; that character has to play second chair to Billie’s symphony of expression. Some elements of Pete’s journey don’t play as well into the elements that “Downhill” lifts from “Force Majeure,” namely the reason for his moping about the Alps.
The driving force in “Downhill” is also subtly altered in that the kids play a less prominent role in the change that happens. Pete is ultimately coerced into playing nice with the family that feels unnatural. Perhaps this is a reflection on families today; we rush headlong into something without fully understanding the consequences, making it no less important in the general, social context.
Reflecting on the end of the film, which will not be divulged here, let’s just say that despite the tonally uneven nature of the story, the film still manages to stick its landing: there is something satisfying about the way we leave Billie and Pete.
“Downhill” has the unenviable task of following Östlund’s film. It is its own story, inspired by the former and on its own, it is not without its challenges but it still stands on its own two skis.