It was just a little avalanche.
Hard to even call it an avalanche, really. The Austrian ski resort was just doing some controlled snow management—setting off loud, gunfire-like bangs along the surrounding slopes to sluff excess snow safely off the mountain.
So maybe this controlled snow management got a wee bit out of control this time, sending a wall of white barreling toward one of the resort’s outdoor restaurants. But hey, the snow—well, most of it, anyway—stopped short of the restaurant deck. The guests might’ve been a little scared, but no one was hurt.
No one was hurt physically, that is. Relationally? That’s another matter.
For the Stanton family, this trip to the Austrian Alps was meant to be the vacation of a lifetime—a week of fun and laughter in an alpine paradise.
Admittedly, not everything was champagne powder with the Stantons even before the “event.” Like the snow in the mountains, their relational foundation had begun to show some instability.
Pete, the family father, lost his own dad not so long ago. He’s still grieving. But he’s also on his phone constantly, and that’s driving Pete’s wife, Billie, a little nuts. It’s as if Pete longs to be somewhere else, and maybe even with someone else, even when he’s on a fabulous trip with his family. Meanwhile, Billie’s rigidity and her desire to keep things safe and predictable rankle against Pete’s desire—his need, really—to find a little spontaneity right now.
But when the avalanche (a little one) roars toward that restaurant deck where the Stantons are sitting, everyone reacts a little differently. Billie sees the snow tearing toward the deck. She hears her two sons—one sitting on each side of her—scream. She covers them with her arms, protecting them as best as she can—waiting, she later says, for the end.
Pete, meanwhile, grabs his phone and makes a dash for it. And when he sees that the avalanche (a little one) just left everyone dusted with a fine film of snow and no worse, he comes back out, sits sheepishly back down and orders his soup.
The avalanche might’ve been little. It might’ve gone exactly as planned—as the resort’s safety officials insist that it did.
But it swept away something from the Stantons that afternoon. Neither Billie nor Pete nor the children say a word about it, but they all feel it. When Billie looks at Pete now, she wonders who he really is. And when Pete looks at Billie, he wonders whether she’ll ever be able to forgive him, and to love him again … after he chose to save his phone instead of his family.
A woman named Charlotte appears to serve as (for lack of a better term) the resort’s concierge. She also has some strong feelings about sex: She tells Billie that she thinks it’s ludicrous that rubbing one’s “parts” together with someone else—even if that someone else isn’t your spouse—should be viewed as a sin. She mocks what she sees as Billie’s more puritanical views on the matter—how “the God is angry in the heavens” at such acts—thus disparaging belief in God itself.
Shortly after the conversation above, Charlotte thrusts an unknowing and unwilling Billie together with a handsome ski instructor (while Pete and the kids are at a family resort 20 minutes down the mountain). Billie and the instructor enjoy a nice morning skiing and eventually ski to a tiny cabin to warm up: Both strip off their outer ski shells, and the instructor convinces Billie to let him massage the kinks out of her legs (still covered in undergarments). His hands get higher and higher, and the two kiss passionately. Billie cuts the kiss off and allows it to go no further. A masturbation scene shortly thereafter (when Billie’s alone and fully clothed) tells viewers she’s still thinking about the encounter.
Pete’s tempted as well. While hanging out with his work friend, Zach (who’s on a freewheeling trip with his girlfriend, Rosie), a young, female stranger walks up to Pete and tells him that her friend (also young and pretty) finds him attractive—then walks away. As Zach tries to talk with Pete, Pete stares at his “admirers,” completely oblivious to his friend, until the same woman walks up again and tells Pete she was mistaken: Her friend was talking about a much younger man sitting a few paces away.
Charlotte tells Billie and Pete that she loves her job, in part because she gets to sleep with so many resort guests. (She’s married, by the way. But she only sees her husband in the summer, and he doesn’t know about her extracurricular activities.) Charlotte makes several crude comments about her own sexual habits, referencing the anatomical parts that she loves. And she nearly kisses Pete on the lips when they first meet. Charlotte tells Billie and Pete that everyone goes into the popular Austrian saunas completely naked for sanitary reasons, telling them both that they should be proud of their bodies. (Behind a mostly closed bathroom door, we hear Pete repeat Charlotte’s exhortation as he apparently joins his wife in the shower.) Billie tells Charlotte that she’d had her share of sexual experiences in college, making a visual pantomime of performing oral sex.
Pete and Billie kiss at times, and Pete looks at pictures sent by his work friend, Zach, of him and his girlfriend smooching on their own European vacation. (The younger couple eventually decides to visit Pete and Billie in Austria.)
A drunken Pete tries to start a fight with a man in a nightclub. A controlled avalanche, as mentioned, tears down the side of a mountain, but doesn’t actually seem to injure anyone.
Nine f-words, two s-words and about three uses of the word “a–.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times. We hear some crass and obscene terms for various body parts.
As Pete’s relationship with Billie crumbles, and as he struggles with something of a midlife crisis (triggered, it would seem, by the death of his father), Pete goes on a drinking binge with Zach. The two quaff beers before heading to a nightclub, where Pete throws down shots. Eventually, Zach drags a staggering, falling-down-drunk Pete out of the club and tries to get him a little sobered up before Pete joins his family for dinner. (Others at the club seem pretty inebriated, too.)
Pete and Billie join Charlotte and her paramour for the day at a restaurant, and Charlotte encourages them both to drink liberally. (They’re on vacation, after all, she tells them, and it’ll help them fit in better.) Billie and Pete often drink wine with dinner or snacks. Billie’s ski instructor opens a flask and dumps liquor into Billie’s thermos of coffee, then pours much of what’s left into his own mouth.
Downhill is really about a relationship heading that direction fast, and both Billie and Pete have habits that we can see might grate on the other.
The couple’s boys fight with each other, as brothers are wont to do, and one calls the other “stupid.” (Billie obviously doesn’t approve of name-calling, and the apology ritual she forces the two to go through is a factor in them missing a once-in-a-lifetime ski opportunity.)
Pete doesn’t apologize for his behavior during the avalanche right away, and he purposefully tries to recast his actions (he lies, in other words) to make himself look … well, less terrible. In an attempt to prove that her version of that moment is the right version, Billie drags the boys out of their room and tells them to say exactly what Dad did. “Dad ran away,” one says, sadly and quietly. Pete later tells Billie that she may have traumatized the boys for forcing them to take part in their fight, and he might be right.
When a woman hears what Pete did during the avalanche, she tells Billie that if her own boyfriend did that, she’d slug him in the privates and never see him again. “It’s black and white,” she insists.
But Billie doesn’t see it that way. She’s somewhat older than the woman with whom she’s talking; she has invested years in her relationship with Pete. She’s got all sorts of good reasons to be angry, of course. But to just walk away from their years of marriage? That’s something else.
You look at the cast of Downhill—Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus—and you might think to yourself, “Oh, hey! A comedy!” And yes, it has some uncomfortably funny moments. But if it could be called a comedy, Downhill (a remake of the Swedish film Force Majeure) is a dark one—pitch black at times. Rather, it’s a searing look at a relationship gone wrong. Yes, it threatens to fall apart completely when the avalanche strikes, but the structural weaknesses were already there. It just needed a loud noise to make it crumble.
As bleak and as uncomfortable as this film often feels, Downhill ultimately has some heartening things to say about marriage. Most obviously, it suggests that a timely apology can go a long way toward healing even serious breaches. But the film goes deeper, too, into the difficult realities of marriage itself.
Even as others tell the couple that the way to live is to “live for yourselves,” Pete and Billie both know better. They’re tempted, yes. But the movie suggests that their relationship, and the family they’ve built together, is worth saving.
That redemptive theme doesn’t ameliorate the content we see and hear along the way, of course—and the discomfort we feel. Language is an issue, but more than that, Downhill is simply a strange, difficult movie to watch on several levels. And the messages we ultimately dig out of the snow might not be worth the trip.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.