Downhill (2016)

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“Acid’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

These are the first words heard (or misheard) in Downhill, after an aerial reveals woodlands below – and they are followed by images of a distressed woman tied to a makeshift altar and being force-fed a live centipede-like creature by a robed priestess who reassures her, “You should be honoured: to carry him is to be blessed.” All this is a flashforward, offering us glimpses of where the narrative is headed – and when we hear that opening line later, in context, it will become clear that the speaker does not in fact say ‘acid’ after all, but something that just sounds similar. Nonetheless the film comes front-loaded with hints of lysergic freakouts and monstrous rituals – and in more ways than one, it is all downhill from there.

Despite all the narrative fores(t)hadowing in this impressionistic prologue (and a running duration of under 90 minutes), Downhill does not so much barrel along as takes its sweet time working out what sort of film it wants to be – although it knows from the outset that it is aiming low. “Taking a shit on a hill,” says Charlie (Eyal Meyer), as though laying out the film’s programme, “That’s not so easy, you know.” Charlie, his fellow competition downhill mountain biker Joe (Bryce Draper), and Joe’s girlfriend – also the victim from the prologue – Stephanie (Natalie Burn) are all filming one another with GoPro cams mounted on their helmets, suggesting that Downhill will be yet another first-person horror flick. By the film’s halfway mark such intradiegetic camerawork has been almost entirely abandoned (apart from an anguished Blair Witch Project-style video diary confession that clumsily retells what has already been shown) – but an element of literal ‘found footage’ will return, rather pointlessly, in the final scenes.

This is not all that seems pointless in a plot that drifts and meanders towards its foretold destination. Charlie’s death in a biking accident, Joe’s reluctant return to racing, and his half-hearted resumption of an affair with Magdalena (Ignacia Allamand), all come across as unnecessary and uneconomic padding – as do the endless leering shots of Stephanie’s ass (not always focalised through voyeuristic villains). It becomes obvious, once Joe and Stephanie have arrived in Chile for Joe’s big comeback, that this is to be a fish-out-of-water story, with the characters’ linguistic isolation only adding to the film’s growing sense of paranoid entrapment – and their run-in with rape-happy ‘locals’ in a bar is pure cliché (if, once again, a scene that hardly advances the plot).

“You watch too many bad movies,” Joe had told Charlie shortly before Charlie’s fatal accident – and so has director/co-writer Patricio Valladares, whose previous film Hidden In The Woods (En las afueras de la ciudad, 2012, remade in English in 2014) was a knowing patchwork of Seventies exploitation postures and shock tactics. Yet in Downhill, even after a virulent infection, murderous hunters, Satanic cabals, a Lovecraftian parasite and a ‘cabin in the woods‘ are thrown into the mix, the results remain dull and incoherent. For those who complain that cinema too rarely accommodates the regular human need to excrete waste, Valladares more than makes up for this with a shower of micturition (and later vomiting) sequences – but in the absence of any actual relevance for this leitmotif, it must be concluded that he, along with his characters, is taking the piss (or “a shit on a hill”). For all its high-stakes ingredients, Downhill comes to a crashing descent. Blame gravity.

© Anton Bitel