|Released 14 February 2020.|
How do couples in long-lasting relationships manage the shift in dynamics that inevitably happen over time?
Downhill (2020) directed by Nate Faxon and Jim Rash present a narrative that addresses this and other questions about love at midlife. Their film is an adaptation of a 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell play Billie and Pete Staunton who are vacationing with their two tween boys at a ski resort in the Swiss Alps.
Because of the film’s title and the preview, I watched the film with an eye for weaknesses in the marriage, finding both couple contributing to some dysfunction: Pete is not invested enough; Billie is overly invested in managing every detail.
Both characters, however, also deserve some sympathy. Billie’s vacation feels more like work since she is the one who is handling most of the pragmatics while Pete is glued to his phone. Pete’s detachment surely is connected to his father’s death eight months previously, and he is probably taking more space to evaluate his life now that he feels his own mortality. But her nagging and his aloofness only feed these behaviors into monstrous proportions.
Then Mother Nature makes a grand entrance when a "controlled" avalanche comes racing towards the resort's deck where the Stauntons are taking a break from skiing and sitting at a picnic table with dozens of other vacationers. Billie hugs their sons closer to her as they cower under the snow, but Pete runs into the lodge, taking the time to pick up his phone of the table before he flees. There is an eerie stillness until all those on the deck assess the damage as more psychological than physical before they all start shaking a layer of snow off their clothing.
What intrigued me was the long gap between the avalanche and Billie’s confrontation of her husband’s impulse to save himself—and his phone. As the minute ticked on, I could feel a growing tension between husband and wife that was nearly unbearable. Of course, she confronts him in the most inopportune moment, causing additional damage to their marriage.
The film offers a few foils for Billie and Pete. At the ski resort are sexually adventurous adults (some married, some not) offering a siren’s call for leaving the challenges of fidelity behind. I have to admit that I watched the scene with the sexy Italian ski instructor three times! But I also reviewed the damage to my family and my own self-respect if I decided to take a vacation from my committed relationship.
Another foil is Pete’s coworker, Zach, whom he had been texting throughout the first third of the film. Zach (played by Zach Woods) appears to be about fifteen or so years younger than Pete. Also, Zach is single but vacationing in Europe with his girlfriend Rosie (played by Zoe Chao), who announces herself later in the film as thirty years old. These younger, unmarried lovers are taking life one day at a time and focusing on adventure, something parents of tweens have more difficulty achieving. From the vantage point of being in their fifties, Pete looks at these two in envy, but Billie finds them unrealistic and immature.
Throughout the film, I kept hoping that both Billie and Pete would accept invitations to repair their marriage, believing the film targeted both of them as equally at fault. However, one scene towards the end puts Pete more squarely in the penitent position. I was actually disappointed that they didn’t share the blame for the tension in their marriage.
Nevertheless, there is one final scene at the entrance to the ski lodge that takes the heat off Pete and points to the survival instinct that all people possess. That was a clever way to throw some meditative work to the viewers as the credits rolled.