British filmmaker James Rouse (best known for his inventive adverts) makes his directorial debut with the lo-fi mockumentary Downhill (2014), the heart-warming tale of four men going through varying stages of mid-life crises as they embark on a coast to coast walk from St. Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay. Pitched as “a road movie, on foot”, the story focuses upon Gordon (Sightseers’ Richard Lumsden) and his son Luke, who has decided to capture his father and his friend’s journey as part of a documentary. Luke remains behind the camera for the most part, his father insisting that he mustn’t “exist” but instead merely “observe”, capturing the antics of this down in the dumps bunch of middle-aged malcontents.
The rest of this trekking quartet is made up of Gordon’s best friend, Keith (Karl Theobald), and school friends he’s not seen in nearly thirty years, including the pompous Julian (Ned Dennehy) and English teacher Steve (Jeremy Swift). The former is a bizarre yet entertaining mix of Richard O’Brien by way of Richard E. Grant’s Withnail, constantly gargling wine and puffing on cigarettes, spitting venom at the other three and utterly at odds with the ambitions of their cross-country odyssey. Each gets their own bit of back story, revelations are had, crises are faced and overcome, and along the way they drink a lot of beer in the various pubs they occasionally pass. In essence, very little actually happens; personal dramas erupt into moments of all-out melodrama where each reveals the ‘problems’ in their lives.
This could all easily become dull but the film’s cast, along with its pithy script, makes for a tender, honest account of middle-aged men past their prime, loaded with warm humour and the odd belly-laugh. Admittedly, attention waxes and wains, with Rouse attempts to energise the plot with the introduction of two women hikers who join the men on the way. This is semi-successful in its endeavours, showing as it does the means chronic fear (and a dawning realisation) of loss of virility. The movie follows in the mould of many road movies we have seen before; Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (2013) and, most recently, The Stag (2013), starring Andrew Scott. Both are about middle-aged, white-male bonding, all are a little tragic in their own way, and all seem indicative of a shifting masculinity identity. Downhill is perhaps better suited to television, but its pleasing vistas, good-natured rib-tickling and likable cast all point to a bright future for Rouse.