Broadly speaking, an American remake of a foreign film is like taking something subtle and making it more obvious. Or if that American remake stars Will Ferrell, making it more broad. At least that’s what you’d expect from Downhill, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s remake of Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure. The opportunity would allow Ferrell to get back in touch with his inner baby, as Ostlund’s film is famously about a man who abandons his wife and children as he flees in panic from an approaching avalanche. When the avalanche ends up doing nothing more than dusting the area with a couple centimetres of snow, there’s egg on his face, and it’s not from anything they were eating at the outdoor café next to the ski slope.
If Ostlund’s film is any indication, this scenario would give Ferrell the chance to go big. After all, there’s a scene in Force Majeure where the cowardly dad (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) has a full-on crying meltdown that is about as broad as a crying meltdown can get. Downhill has no equivalent scene, perhaps because Faxon and Rash understand that there is something ineffable about the tone of black comedy Ostlund was able to conjure in that movie. Paradoxically, Force Majeure is both more subtle and more broad than Downhill, leaving the American film in a slushy middle ground.
Pete Staunton (Ferrell) is on an Austrian holiday with his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and his two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford). Although the kids don’t love skiing and Pete is on his phone too much, the trip is mostly going swimmingly until a split-second flight instinct reveals unwanted truths about Pete. As the family is about to order lunch at a slope-side café, a controlled avalanche starts to encroach on an area they all would have assumed was safe. As the billowing snow becomes a reality, Pete grabs his phone – but not his wife and kids – and bolts from the table away from the coming plume of destruction. Billie, on the other hand, holds her sons tight to shelter them, and if necessary, face their makers together.
Although it shocks everyone, the snow leaves them unhurt, and at first, speechless about how to account for Pete’s behaviour. They order lunch and try to continue on with their day. But as Billie and the kids think more about what could have happened, and how the man who has anointed himself their protector reacted to it, it starts to unravel the holiday, and potentially, their lives as a harmonious family unit. This is magnified when Pete, in full-on self-protection mode, explains that he sees the events of that afternoon differently from Billie. I mean, how can you run wearing ski boots?
While it’s unwise to do a point-by-point comparison of a film and its remake, the most obvious difference between the two films – their running times – illuminates the difference of approach and the resulting difference in effectiveness. Downhill comes in at a pretty brisk 90 minutes, shaving nearly 30 minutes from the run time of its predecessor. On the surface, that seems like a welcome change, given that the film’s actual narrative does not demand a lengthy consideration, unfolding over a period of five days at a ski resort. Ostlund seemed happy to meander for large sections of his film, sometimes without an apparent purpose.
The lengthiest diversion in Force Majeure, though – the part that seems like it could lift out the most easily – is also it’s most interesting in terms of exploring the film’s themes. In that film, Kristofer Hivju of Game of Thrones appears as a friend of the main character who crashes their holiday with his girlfriend in tow. (He also appears here, in the smaller role of the man supervising the controlled avalanches.) He and his (much younger) girlfriend are witness to the central couple blowing up at each other about their differing interpretations of the event, and he tries to help Kuhnke’s Tomas by providing lame explanations that could help vindicate him. The interesting part is that he and his girlfriend take the debate back to their own hotel room, where she off-handedly doubts he would behave any differently than Tomas did in that scenario. This discussion spirals so that neither of them gets much sleep, even though they weren’t part of the incident in question, and it takes up more than ten minutes of screen time.
Faxon and Rash lifted that out at their peril. Those characters appear in Downhill as played by Zach Woods and Zoe Chao, but they serve only a surface function. They aren’t the viewers’ surrogates, taking the discussion of how we would behave in that fight-or-flight scenario home with them – with us. None of us knows how we would behave in a situation like that until we are confronted by it, which is why Force Majeure was such a conversation starter when it came out six years ago. It allowed audiences to engage in a dangerous speculation that is not so readily provided by Downhill.
Instead, the story makes Ferrell’s character less obviously pathetic, plus adds the mitigating factor that Pete is still coming to grips with his father’s death eight months earlier. Whereas Ostlund wanted to pierce false machismo by revealing its cowardly underbelly, Faxon and Rash are more eager to find excuses for the apparent cowardice. The story loses its sense of wickedness as a result, rounding out more into considerations of the fleeting nature of life. You get the impression the avalanche serves more as a wakeup call for whether they are living their best lives, which is perhaps an easier theme for American audiences to swallow. It sands the edge off the comedy and leaves the film feeling more dramatic and serious-minded than it should. Downhill doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be a comedy, which is okay, but a few moments that are set up as comedy fall flat as a result of the gloomier overall tone.
The film does have a saving grace, though, which is the performance of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She perfected that look of incredulity when listening to the absurd philosophies of Jerry, Kramer and George, but rarely has she used it in a mostly dramatic setting. Louis-Dreyfus’ comedic instincts surely helped get her cast in this role, but Faxon and Rash correctly allow her to sublimate those instincts toward drama. In reality, this would be a pretty upsetting situation, the revelation that your husband might be a coward and the proof that he might value his phone more than his family. Louis-Dreyfus’ every reaction to her evolving opinion of her husband – her life in general – is spot-on.
Downhill emerges as a reasonably worthy remake because it doesn’t commit the mistakes most remakes commit, simply dumbing down the material and making it more accessible. It defies certain expectations that came along with its casting, as Ferrell obviously took the role not to give us just another tantruming man child, but rather, to explore the more profound themes that have hovered around the edges of that persona. But it clearly misses an opportunity to deliver a timely blow to the male ego, which Ruben Ostlund did with more deliberateness and confidence back at a time when shifts in gender politics did not yet demand it. In 2020, Downhill should have been unafraid to show how afraid men can get.