Nobody is ever going to call “Downhill” a classic or even a great film, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is a worthy dark comedy with moments of pure genius. The problem is that it skirts that fine line between memorable and utter garbage so precariously that you can’t ever really be sure of which side it has staked a claim. Considering that it was made for $1100 by film students helps place it into the memorable column.
The plot is not exactly something we’ve seen before, and much of the action that motivates it comes from left field, yet still fits. Jonah (Joe Gariffo) is a high school student who loves two things: boxcar racing and Dana (Jessica Kienzle). Dana is with another guy, but that doesn’t stop Jonah from making a bet (for $5.00) with his best friend that he will be dating the girl very soon. How does he plan on winning that bet and the girl’s heart? By murdering her boyfriend. As if that isn’t enough, Jonah decides to kill anyone who blocks his path to true love.
Gariffo, quite simply, is Jonah. He plays the character exactly right. Bordering between sympathetic and psychotic, you never know which side you are going to see. The guy can’t fight (as witnessed at the beginning of the film in a hilarious moment in a pool hall) and often screams like a girl when being attacked. His friends are few and far between, but girls seem to find him tolerable. He’s in love with a “slut” (who does nothing to dispel that label) while a perfectly suitable female is right in front of his face. In other words, he’s the kind of confused teenager we all were, but with a really sinister side that is quickly getting out of control.
The film’s strengths are crippled with problems, however. The plot is often too silly to actually work, but there are inspired segments so spot-on that it’s hard to believe this is a first film. The actors, for the most part, are perfect for their roles, though they all display that hint of amateurism that seems concomitant with this type of budget and project. That said, it’s hard to picture a more seasoned actor being able to pull off these moments with the same air of realism.
Action comedies are big right now, with “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder” showing that there is an audience for them. “Downhill,” which was made in 2006, takes action (most notably a group fight scene at the end involving baseball bats, swords, tire irons and a gun) and comedy and combines it with a nasty streak like that which can be found in “Heathers,” and makes it work … most of the time. The results aren’t often pretty, but when it works it makes you think that with a few more films under their belts, these folks will be turning heads.