Sunday, February 16, 2020

At the Mountains of Madness

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There's nothing like standing on the top of a mountain. The air is thin and crystallized, you can see your breath and you can see for miles -- to me it's always felt like a venture towards clarity, a stomach deep inhale of self. I look down at the world below and I can see me, so tiny below -- it's perspective, is what it is. Or maybe just light-headedness. Either way it rules, I recommend it. Ruben Östlund's 2014 film Force Majeure satirized that sensation with Swedish precision, peeling back the faces of a dysfunctioned family unit on vacation to reveal the shattered bones underneath, and here comes the American film-makers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back) with Downhill six years later to try and do the same for the red white and blue set.

Billie (Julia Louis Dreyfus, genius) and Pete (Will Ferrell) are the parents to two boys, and the foursome's just arrived at their exquisite Alpine chateau-hotel weighted down with too many boots, too many screens, too many side-eyes. Everything seems wrong from the start -- Pete can't stop sneaking glances at his phone for one, and for another the place they've come to stay at doesn't seem kid-friendly in the slightest. Sultry snow-bunnies of both sexes abound, tickling the slopes like foreplay. The family can't even make it through the lobby without their over-friendly concierge (a hysterically funny Miranda Otto, bringing some much needed broad as a barn antics to bear) getting real over excited over the clothing-optional jacuzzis.

And that's before the avalanche comes. The peace they've come here for is already rattled, a vibe that's aurally punctuated by the sounds of explosions above -- the forced release of tensions on the mountain tops, all the better to control the snow's pressure. You can't let things build up too much -- that's just science. And so when Billie and Pete and the kids find themselves on an outdoor patio for lunch and a sudden wall of snow comes tumbling down toward them, slow then not slow then freaking everybody out everywhere, Pete's scramble to save himself a la George Costanza, leaving his family behind to fend for their selves, well, it releases its own wet wall of horror for all in his cowardly wake.

The detached precision of Östlund's film, which built the blackest sort of nervous comedy out of extraordinarily weighted pauses -- we often found ourselves sitting excruciatingly long inside the moments after somebody rushed to say something real stupid -- isn't as sharp or mean-spirited here; Rash and Faxon have more empathy as film-makers for their characters, sometimes to a fault. Nothing much substantial comes out of Pete being on the tail-end of mourning his own father who's died eight months before except exactly what you expect to come from that; there's a generic message-seeking about man-children finding their footsteps that's there in the material without having to get double underlined; moments like that feel like we're tearing up the original film's small path through the snow, we blundering Americans taking too big of steps. Caution, tininess, is sometimes the key.

That said Downhill's fore-fronting of technology as a destabilizing factor in 2020 familial relations is a welcome wash over the proceedings, the laughter off an iPad weaponized into something like a cold brute slap across the face. And the film really rather soars like an eagle whenever it trains its focus down on Billie's building despair, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus proving herself more than a match for the serious drama of those moments, the ground giving way beneath her as her life and what it's come to comes entirely undone. So much of it lives in us watching her watch what's happening in front of her with a dazed dawning what-the-fuck comprehension, as she wipes the avalanche off her face and the cold, the stun, turns to fire under her comically oversized gloves. She charts a way through this marital wipe-out well worth our attention and she sees and helps us see the tiny sparkling possible self clear as a crystal below.


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