If I’m being honest, I’m still kind of shocked that the Academy gave the Best Picture award to Parasite. Of the films nominated I do think that Parasite was the clear best of the bunch, but the idea that the Academy would give their highest honor to a South Korean film that wasn’t in English, and actually required people to read subtitles. Feats that apparently are far beyond the skills of the average American. And yet, it won, and the film has absolutely crushed at the box office, at least compared to what a weird subtitled South Korean film would normally do in America. It could be a sign that Americans are willing to broaden their horizons, check out films of different cultures and languages, and actually work a little bit to experience new stories. Or, we could end up with an American version of Parasite in a couple of years that wildly disappoints everyone involved. Because, that does seem to be the way that American studios typically treat successful foreign films. And, almost without exception, these straight-forward remakes that just take a successful film and attempts to translate it to an American point of view, have been terrible. Which brings us to Downhill, a new film that’s a remake of a popular and successful Swedish film from 2014 known as Force Majeure. And, folks? It’s bad!
The film follows a wealthy American family taking a much-needed vacation in the Alps, having a ski-trip and enjoying a largely adult-centric resort. The patriarch of the family, Pete, has been pretty distant lately, largely due to the recent death of his father, and his wife Billie is hoping that this trip will help bring the family closer together. But, after an initial day that’s largely dominated by Pete trying to dictate everything that the family does, something traumatic happens. Because, when the family are taking a break at an outdoor restaurant to get some lunch, a controlled avalanche is triggered on the nearby mountains. The family watch in horror as an avalanche comes barreling down towards them, assuming that they’re going to die. Billie grabs the two children and protects them, as Pete grabs his phone and runs away from the family. The avalanche stops before hitting the restaurant, and everyone is safe, but the family are all now very aware that when the chips are down, Pete would abandon them all to save himself. This leads to everyone being pretty awkward and numb for a while, doing their best not to bring up what happened, until Pete and Billie end up having a strange dinner with the intense concierge they’ve unwillingly befriended. And, in the middle of the dinner Billie ends up losing her cool, yelling at Peter about the experience, while he attempt to brush it off as a minor incident.
And, from there on out, the trip begins to crumble. Pete and Billie start fighting more and more, the kids act completely miserable having to spend time with their father, and Pete begins getting more and more aggressive as he attempts to make this trip perfect hoping to save things while just making it worse. And, seeking an ally, Pete ends up inviting a friend of his from work to come visit. Which, doesn’t go well. Zach and his girlfriend Rosie arrive, and find themselves tossed into the middle of this horrible argument, which starts to get more transparently angry. And, after a night of screaming at each other, they decide to take some time apart, with Pete taking the kids to a more kid-friendly resort for the day while Billie does some private skiing. But, that just leads to Pete pissing the kids off with his over-bearing attempts to get them excited, and Billie ends up considering having an affair with a skiing instructor. Which then leads into another day where Billie spends quality time with the kids while Pete goes skiing with Zach, leading the two of them to get drunk together in a club all day. And, after a day of drinking and misery, Pete finally confesses to Billie that she had the situation correct, and sort of apologizes for doing it. But, it’s too little too late, and Billie just blows him off, leading to their final day. The family attempt to go skiing, but a terrible storm has made conditions pretty spotty. Pete decides to skip the skiing and take the kids to the bottom, letting Billie ski on her own again. And, to help Pete’s standing with his own kids, she pretends to have an accident on the slope, having Pete save her so that his children won’t think that he’s quite as cowardly.
Despite its reputation, I actually hadn’t seen Force Majeure until right before going to see Downhill. I’d heard excellent things about the Swedish film, but just hadn’t gotten around to it until I felt like I was going to need to compare it with its American remake. And, like people had been telling me for years, Force Majeure is a hell of a movie. It’s funny, sad, frustrating, and portrays a pretty realistic result of a ridiculous situation. It’s a complicated film, where lots of people are in the wrong, that primarily takes the form of a bunch of uncomfortable conversations where everyone involved is trying to be on their best behavior. And, Downhill takes all of those basic premises, and makes it more American. Which, apparently means that it becomes louder, less nuanced, and full of extra soap operatic drama. The movie just doesn’t succeed in replicating the tone of the original, which is honestly the thing that makes the Swedish film work. Instead we get this movie that attempts comedy and falls on its face, attempts drama but seems too ridiculous to pull it off, and just doesn’t have any of the reality of the situation. Instead we just get a lot of scenes of our two leads screaming at each other, while tossing out justifications for what happened. The original film doesn’t have any of the dead dad stuff, and just tries to show that sometimes we do shitty things, and it’s just who we are, and we have to deal with that. But, this film keeps making the case that maybe Pete isn’t exactly in the wrong, and that he’s just going through a tough time. Which really just succeeds in defanging the central premise.
To me, the whole concept of these types of movies are fundamentally flawed. There are essentially no films that are just blatant remakes of popular foreign films, just with white people speaking English, that come close to matching the power of the original film. And, I don’t understand why they keep trying to do it. No one remembers these remakes, and all they really accomplish is convincing people to go check out the better original films. Which, ends up begging the question, why are we doing this? I guess the idea is that Americans are just repulsed by films featuring people that don’t look like them and that don’t speak the same language, which I guess is unfortunately fair, but to then make the exact same film, just worse, seems like such a missed opportunity. Remakes of other countries films don’t necessarily need to be like this. Think of movies like the Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars, both of which are fairly blatant remakes of successful Japanese films, but transporting the central themes and premises into a lens of Western movies, which ends up working so much better. Taking Force Majeure and making an American version that doesn’t attempt to just do the same thing, down to essentially capturing some of the same shots, just seems like a wasted opportunity when they could take the central conceit, and do something different with it. That would at least have been memorable.
Downhill was written by Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and released by Searchlight Pictures, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk