Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus Nail Drama with ‘Downhill’


Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrel appear in Downhill by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

By Abigail Bowé, Arts Writer


There are particular actors that we associate with comedy as opposed to any other genre. Often, it can be difficult to think of these people in more dramatic and heartfelt roles, but skilled performers have been known to surprise — like Steve Carell in “Dan in Real Life” or Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” From this past 2020 Sundance Festival, such a phenomenon has occurred once again with “Downhill,” a provocative character study and remake of the 2014 Swedish drama “Force Majeure.” It stars Will Ferrell (known for roles in “Elf” and “Anchorman”) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (best known for “Seinfeld”), both well known for their work in comedy. Though the pairing doesn’t sound like it makes much sense, and I couldn’t imagine Ferrell doing much serious acting prior to seeing this film, the duo makes it work. I’m stunned.

When Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete Staunton (Ferrell) take their two sons on a skiing trip to the Austrian Alps, the group expects to go on a fun and much-needed vacation. Everything points to a fun trip until, very shortly into the film, everything goes wrong. An avalanche hits and Pete runs away, leaving his family to be buried. When all members of the family come out wholly unharmed, learning that the avalanche was known ahead of time to be nonfatal, the group resumes their vacation without saying anything more about it. However, the entire family knows perfectly well what Pete did, and naturally things are bound to go downhill.

Though this premise makes Pete sound like a wholly selfish and unlikeable jerk, “Downhill” is fascinating in that Ferrell lends the character genuine personality and emotion. Ferrell’s soft-spoken acting and nervous facial expressions render Pete a sympathetic but emotionally lost man. This certainly marks the best acting I’ve ever seen from Ferrell.

Throughout the entirety of the movie, Pete’s expressions carry the dual emotions of trying to be happy while clouded by deep existential sadness that’s difficult to articulate. Pete was thinking of living for himself — a feeling Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) begins to echo as she comes to doubt her husband’s loyalty. Interestingly, the cinematography (from Danny Cohen) makes a lot of use of mirrors, symmetry and sliding, as if to illustrate that Billie and Pete’s insecurities are the same in essence. Do they have the right to be themselves— to exist as independent people — or are they supposed to sacrifice everything for their family?

I would give “Downhill” 9 stars out of 10. Sprinkled with some good jokes, the film leans towards artsy in a good way. It makes me want to see Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell in other serious roles in the future. The remarkable acting from each blew me away.


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