You might call Chappellet a cipher, a bland slate of a man who seems to possess no conscience or soul. He's not evil, just driven. Self-centered. Clueless about about pretty much everything else except the sport. He may not even really care about skiing, but he realizes that he is quite good at it, and hurtles toward a goal of achieving the top honor. But then what? The movie ends before he can ask or find out. Interestingly, the next film director Michael Ritchie and Redford worked on, 1972's THE CANDIDATE, ends with the main character's inquiries to that effect once he's won the election. Is it all about the journey?
DOWNHILL RACER, distinguished by Brian Probyn's great photography and some highly impressive ski sequences, is a quietly effective portrait of a man who's quite visible for his talent yet remains a shadow. Redford, who indeed appears a bit blank in some of his roles, was the perfect casting choice. He seems to not have (or even be interested in) friendships. He becomes infatuated with a woman named Carole (Camilla Sparv) who works for the company courting him to wear their skis, but the tryst fizzles after a few rendezvous. Is it because Chappellet is ill equipped to actually give in a relationship? Or is his lover just as vacuous and selfish? I like how James Salter's screenplay refuses to paint Carole as a martyr or saint, someone to redeem David.
Also noteworthy is Gene Hackman's work as head coach Eugene Claire. He brings his usual solid professionalism and has such a singular persona that is just so enjoyable to watch, even during the perfunctory scene when he dresses down Chappellet for an impromptu race down a mountain to causes injury to the team's top athlete. This element of the plot (among others) is fascinatingly similar to 1986's TOP GUN, by the way.
Ritchie began his film career with many interesting social dramas, giving way to more commercial fare in the '80s and beyond. Those familiar with SMILE and THE BAD NEWS BEARS will see in DOWNHILL RACER the genesis of his observant eye on the human condition, one again cast at a distinctively American protagonist. There's a very keen awareness of social dynamics, especially how folks view each other. There's a minimum of melodrama, yet big moments that bring their personalities into the light, revealing their multifaceted DNA. I think of Vic Morrow's berating of his son in BAD NEWS BEARS, Barbara Feldon's unfailingly cheery disposition (even after being shot!) in SMILE. Redford gets a revealing moment of his own in this movie, when he suddenly, abruptly reacts to finding Carole in Switzerland with another fellow. Maybe there is a soul in there.