[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Prince Avalanche opens today in limited release.]
Director David Gordon Green broke through with indie films such as George Washington and All the Real Girls, and then seemed like he would make a strong transition to larger budget features after the success of Pineapple Express. However, the quality of pictures decreased as the concepts increased. The stoner medieval comedy Your Highness was painfully disappointing, and the mean-spirited The Sitter was even worse. His new film, Prince Avalanche, is a welcome return to form as it puts Green back inside an indie budget but lets him hold onto the goofy humor of Pineapple Express and Eastbound and Down (he has directed ten episodes over the course of the series). The result is a quiet, sweet, and funny picture about loneliness featuring noteworthy performances from stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch.
Set in Texas in 1988, the film follows road workers Alvin (Rudd) and Lance (Hirsch). The two are busy repairing the road after a gigantic forest fire the previous year. As a favor to his girlfriend Gloria, Alvin reluctantly works with the juvenile Lance, who is Gloria’s little brother. The two have an uneasy relationship as they’re simply not on the same wavelength. Alvin is in love with Gloria, enjoys working in nature, and hopes to build a family some day. Lance is eager to get laid, wants to get back to the city, and doesn’t think past the next weekend. As the story progresses, they discover they might be more alike than they previously thought.
It’s a bit of a vague description since Prince Avalanche isn’t a plot-driven film. The entire movie takes place in the charred forest and along the road. The momentum is a bit slow, but Green keeps the pacing up even though the movie only had a few locations and three major characters (Lance LeGault plays an oddball truck driver who occasionally comes by and offers libations to Alvin and Lance). It’s mostly a quiet movie where Green has the freedom to try stranger techniques like disconnected voices, tagged trees that spell out a feeling, and other moments that provide a little flair to a small picture.
Even with the embellishment, Prince Avalanche is small and proud of it. The burden falls heavily on Rudd and Hirsch, and the two actors turn in a couple of their most memorable performances. As the uptight and slightly humorless Alvin, Rudd reminds us that he has far more range than his mainstream projects allow. Rather than the fun guy who’s always well-armed with a quip, Alvin is a proud romantic who seems to have convinced himself that his loneliness is a choice and not a defense mechanism. As for Hirsch, he takes a character that could have been played as a broad, lovable dimwit, and finds a real person in Lance. Hirsch once again shows maturity beyond his years by choosing to go for what’s small and genuine rather than the big laugh.
Green hasn’t created a non-stop comedy like his mainstream pictures, and Prince Avalanche takes the time to pause so the characters can get their footing. The movie is okay with turning off the comedy, having Alvin go to a burned down house, and talking with its former owner, who tells him “Sometimes I feel like I’m digging through my own ashes.” It’s a moment that ties in nicely with Alvin’s dreams of building a family, but being too much of a recluse to try and turn that dream into reality. The comedy is present throughout, but Green always keeps his focus around his central characters and their loneliness.
By “going back to his roots”, Green has made his most confident movie in years. The film is gorgeously shot, patient in its pacing, and takes a sweet approach to its lonesome characters. The film’s conclusion feels a little obvious, and the symbolism can get a bit heavy-handed, but we can forgive these minor missteps when Green has stopped stumbling around for his audience’s approval. With Prince Avalanche, Green has gone back to walking his own path, and inviting us to follow him through a burnt forest.