Anyone who has seen the complex, slightly disturbing Swedish cerebral thriller Force Majeure might have been surprised—possibly horrified—to learn it was being remade in the U.S. as a Will Ferrell comedy. That may have been especially true after seeing the trailer for the remake, now called Downhill, that features a lot of comic slapstick action and exasperated yelling from Ferrell and co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Your faithful critic was one of those skeptics. So it’s a relief to report that Downhill proceeds with a lot more serious intent than you might expect, as befits the story of a family on a ski vacation whose close encounter with a near-avalanche and its aftermath threatens to drive the parents’ marriage off a cliff. Co-produced by Louis-Dreyfus, it does have more of a frenetic undercurrent than the spare, sober original, but the theme of disrupted trust still has a harrowing edge.
An American family—dad Peter (Ferrell), mom Billie (Louis-Dreyfus), and their twin sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford)—is on vacation at a fancy ski resort in the Swiss Alps. On their second day on the slopes, they are having lunch at a cafe on an open terrace when one of the “controlled” mini-avalanches periodically set off at the resort suddenly comes hurtling down the mountain toward them. It takes a couple of minutes for the tourists happily snapping pics on their phones to register the danger and dash inside from the terrace. One of them is Peter—who flees his family in fear.
It’s a near miss; within another few minutes, diners are returning to their meals, trying to laugh it off. But not before viewers experience (along with Billie and the kids and a few others left behind) a moment of complete, paralyzing whiteout. Paralyzing, too, is the gulf of silence that grows between Billie and Peter when he fails to even discuss what happened. It only widens when a co-worker and his girlfriend (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao) join them at the resort.
The issue is not only that Peter ran off in a moment of panic, but also his subsequent behavior. At first acting as if nothing untoward has happened, he then grudgingly begins referring to the “event,” downplaying its significance. In attempting to whitewash the entire incident as no big deal, he not only refuses to acknowledge Billie’s genuine terror in the moment, but also belittles her for having felt it. Worse, he keeps contradicting her account with his alternative version, trying to control the truth after the fact.
Much of the movie is devoted to Peter scrambling to reestablish common ground with the prickly Billie. It’s especially pathetic the way he tries to worm his way back into the illusion of solidarity with her against the frosty resort rep to whom they complain about the incident. (The rep is played by Kristofer Hivju, beloved as the ginger-haired Wilding leader in Game of Thrones. Fun fact: it’s a cameo for Hivju, who co-starred in Force Majeure as the husband’s visiting co-worker.)
Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell deftly ramp up the tension between them in many small ways. But it’s a bit disappointing when they finally have their inevitable showdown that Billie is most concerned with how much Peter wants to be with the family—extending to him the luxury of making a choice. The real question ought to be how they can regain the necessary trust in their partnership after his prolonged failure to behave with honesty.
Angst aside, there are some more overtly comic touches here, like Billie’s interlude with a handsome Italian ski instructor (Giulio Berruti), and the overbearing Frau Blucher (only more glam) of a hotel concierge (Miranda Otto) who sets them up. But it’s a mistake to market this movie as a typical rom-com for the date-night crowd, who will no doubt find it more perplexing than romantic.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Zach Woods, Zoë Chao, and Miranda Otto. Written by Jesse Armstrong and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Inspired by the movie Force Majeure by Ruben Östlund. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Rated R. 86 minutes.