Transversing the tropes and cliches of the underdog sports story, Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer provides the anti-thesis to films such as Rocky; a terse and transfixing psychological study of a man driven to reach the top of the mountain of his career. Centered around the self-assured David Chappellet, a young hotshot skier who gains a spot on the American Olympic team after another skier gets badly injured on the slopes, Downhill Racer is a complex, many-faceted character study, one that is constantly probing its young subject, intent on unearthing the inner psyche of a character who simply put, wants to be the best. Bold in its relative plotless formalism, at least when compared to most mainstream American features, Downhill Racer is film in which much is told throughout the use of didactic dialogue or forced plotting, with Ritchie's observant eye and Redford's multi-dimensional performance slowly revealing the inner-workings of this character. To call Downhill Racer a condemnation of the underdog sports story is perhaps a bit harsh, yet Downhill Racer does reject the simplicity of such films, unwilling to merely accept the competitive drive of its main protagonist as nothing more than that, slowly revealing a man in Chappellet whom is scared of failure and whose outward confidence and general self-interest are directly linked to his underlying fear of defeat and the lack of accreditation which would come with it. Chappellet's whole identity both internally and externally are defined by his ability to win on the downhill, and perhaps what makes Michael Ritchie's film so memorable is its ability to slowly reveal the tragic nature of this character, a man whom deep down doesn't know what he wants whom is chasing a ghost - the accreditation, fame, and fortune he feels he deserves. Downhill Racer's visual aesthetic is crafted much in the same mold as its characterizations, being intricately detailed yet unconventional by traditional mainstream American filmmaking standards, imploring a cinema-verite aesthetic that feels authentic in both its action-packed skiing moments and its quieter, character moments, evoking the underlying tension that lurks not only at every turn of the race but also that which lurks within our young protagonist, a man whom is desperate to be appreciated and remembered. In its finale Downhill Racer remains ambiguous and unsatisfying by traditional standards for its unwillingness to openly state its assertions. The viewer isn't told anything outright, yet the glance shared between David Chappellett and the racer who follows him, a younger German boy who nearly eclipsed him, says plenty. In this quiet moment, Chappellet has learned something about the finite and overall cruel nature of sports itself, understanding now how quickly things can change and recognizing that personal drive and achievement alone won't bring internal satisfaction. He is a character whom chases the ghost of greatness, yet in this moment he recognizes the objective nature of sports and competition, his near defeat in itself offering a glimmer of hope for this self-centered character, one that will lead him to recognize that an individual's value or worth isn't merely valued by external success. Juxtaposing the film's denouement with its opening, in which a skier's injury takes him out of Olympic competition, Downhill Racer reveals itself as one of the best sports film's ever made. Downhill Racer acknowledges the therapeutic or virtuous nature that competition and personal accomplishment can have on the individual while simultaneously warning against the short-sighted nature of placing too much value on one's competition-based successes, especially in sports in which success is finite and fleeting. Winning medals and being heralded as one of the best skiers in the world could bring David Chappellett what he wants short term, but will it be enough in the end? The denoucement of Downhill Racer, and the many-faceted characterization which preceded it, suggest otherwise.
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