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David Chappellet is a mean-spirited skier, who profits from another skier's injury to gain a spot on the American Olympic team. His roommate sums up his goals when he observes of David, "He's not for the team, and he never will be"; but precisely who the David is that David is so fiendishly striving for we're never to learn. He develops a short-lived relationship with Carole Stahl, a glamorous European woman even more capricious than himself. Chappellet's identity trouble are exacerbated by the fact that he is an "Event" as well as a personality; and more astute minds than his own have difficulty where the one leaves off and the other takes over. Director Michael Richie's ("The Candidate") feature film debut. Written by
This buried New Hollywood pearl literally follows and watches a single-minded outsider from Colorado who, having netted a position on the American ski team upon the lay-up of another athlete, fanatically chases the objective of winning, with a full-blown indifference to etiquette and professional fine points. David Chappellet is a cad, a handsome rough-country bumpkin who veils his social anxiety and lack of knowledge with a bold mystique. In reality, he'd simply be an ignorant rube, but here he enters the abundant class of antiheroes who rallied round to characterize American movies of their vital, unforgettable period. Even then, Chappellet gave the impression of being an aloof, intractable character, and his tough, emotionally unapproachable nature maybe contributed to the film's market letdown. Regardless, his dogged insubordination was the yardstick tackle at the time: Consider Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, Hoffman in The Graduate, Fonda in Easy Rider, Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest, Gould and Sutherland in M*A*S*H. So while Chappellet's posture was wholly egocentric instead of rational, his impulse to beat the system and go his own way did not then feel as radical as it does today after the Reagan and post-Reagan eras of manufactured sports victories and champion cops who treat mass destruction like a football game.
One of the film's trademark properties is hand-held footage from the viewpoint of the racers, which had never been done in a feature film before and was no Sunday stroll when the skier was doing over fifty miles per hour and the 35mm Arriflex camera weighed forty pounds. Whether or not one wants to speak in terms of its time, the film was and still is outstanding in its aura of the velocity, reverberation and pressure of competitive skiing. The chomp of the snow, the bone-freezing and muscle-constricting time lags on gusty mountaintops for a skier's rotation to come, the unstoppable tick of the timer, the archaic appearance of the skis and soft boots are all minutiae encapsulated with terse, nimble, confident strokes. Olympic connoisseurs were undivided in commending the film's correctness and candor, a scarce phenomenon in the far-fetched universe of Hollywood sports movies.
Going for an induced documentary tactic considerably shaped how the film would come across, as did the selection of hard-core verite cinematographer Brian Probyn. Together, Probyn and director Michael Ritchie have here a more or less internal documentary about Redford's body, capturing it from angles that highlight his geometry in conjunction with his attractiveness. Multiple times, Redford stops to look in a mirror and observe himself with unopinionated, unaffected frankness.
Their gritty, biting drama is stark, distilled to its densest connective tissue, as keen as arid residue. Several of the film's evocations of character and emotion go unspoken, staying within unless discriminatingly stimulated. Chappellet is a man of few words who won't budge by the narrowest margin, and it's consistent that the film frequently cuts away right when it appears he may be strained to say something, to be slightly more human than normally seems. All that he hides is suggested throughout his stopover back home in a Rockies town. His father, a friendless stick-in-the-mud, is a man of even fewer words than his son, and the curt, indignant, and self-centered outlook he squeezes out toward David's fortuity betrays all we require to go on about David's egocentric relentlessness.
The undercurrent of the climax is whether or not Chappellet will allow being given the high hat by a stylish yet emotionally unavailable Swiss beauty throw him off on the slopes, and Ritchie's deliberate, atmospheric debut eschews all the frills that would classify American sports movies by the time Rocky emerged seven years afterward. It's gristly, cynical, painstaking, minimalist and declines to fabricate unwarranted enthusiasm. The film is courageous in securing itself to a character as minimally sympathetic as Chappellet, and Redford never loses sight of the role to comfort us that he, the actor, may be less conceited and selfish than the guy in the script. Chappellet is an unmitigated self-aggrandizer, and while Redford would play such parts again, he never did so quite this uniquely, with such craving invigorated by formative years. The ideas of Downhill Racer are lucid, having to do with the temperament of rivalry and the sacrifice of triumph. The brilliant closing line of Ritchie's important second film with Redford, The Candidate, "What happens next?" said by Redford upon being elected, is understood in the ending of Downhill Racer.
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