Director David Gordon Green has been hot or cold with the critics (and audiences the last few years). After creating breakout indies that garnered attention, Green turned to comedy with the stoner hit, Pineapple Express. After that it was back-to-back duds with Your Highness and The Sitter. Audiences were starting to wonder if Green’s past success was a fluke. Prince Avalanche is a return to the quiet, methodical independent spirit that Green started out with; and while it’s anchored by two distinctive performances by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, its pace can start to feel incredibly sluggish. If you can stick with it, you’ll find a warmth within as Green explores how even the most unusual (and in some cases, downright annoying) people can possess a strong moral center and their own blend of unique comedy.
As a favor to his girlfriend, Alvin (Paul Rudd) hires her slacker brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) to spend time with him painting lines on the highway. Set amongst the Texas wildfires of the late ‘80s, Lance and Alvin grow from mutual hatred to a wary friendship as they come to understand they both have issues that need to be addressed.
In a nutshell: Prince Avalanche is a movie where two people sit and have lengthy conversations for 90 minutes. That right there should tell you whether you should sit down and watch. Green is adept at telling stories about small-town life and the secret lives of the people we interact with everyday (see Snow Angels for a darker, more depressing examination). Prince Avalanche possesses its own blend of broad humor, but it’s done in the guise of two men stuck out in the wilderness with each other. Lance is a slacker, obsessed with getting laid. He’s a man-child with the brain and attention span of a twelve-year-old, who’s probably never been trusted with, or given any type of responsibility. Alvin, on the other hand, is a neurotic control freak with possibly underlying mental illness. (We see him take prescription pills, but there’s no explanation as to why.) Both men bond not just as adults, but in a bizarre father/son bonding trip complete with fishing and tent-making. In a way, both men are brought together by a woman, but discover that the strongest bond is within the friendship between each other.
Paul Rudd is normally seen for his hilarious comedic turns, but here he’s somber as Alvin. Alvin demands love in exchange for his hard work, and when his girlfriend tells him that a relationship requires people to be in the same place, he can’t fathom that. One telling sequence is when Alvin walks through the ruins of a burned-down house, simulating a happy family. As he sits alone in a rocking chair, in the middle of nowhere, it becomes frightening at the sheer happiness he feels at being alone. Alvin wants people in his life; he just doesn’t want to be around them. Emile Hirsch is the loveable goof of the movie, saddled with a dramatic turn of events by story’s end. Both men are left with ambiguous conclusions, but Lance more so because he has no idea how to handle things. He explains that on his one weekend away from work he actually fell asleep instead of partying. It’s a frightening moment for him, and while Hirsch’s delivery tries to play it off, you can see how much growing up frightens him. In the end, Prince Avalanche is about the avalanche of responsibility that comes with age, and man’s inability to control everything.
This is made apparent by the burned-out Texas landscape the two are working in. There’s an opening text scrawl about the series of fires that dotted the Texas landscape, the cause of which remains unknown. I almost started to wonder if Green was blaming man for the fires. Lance and Alvin tear each other down, breaking down each other’s will for their own enjoyment, much like someone burning down a forest. By the end, the two are united and committed to starting new; a sequence juxtaposed with clean-up efforts and others attempts to build the forest back up.
Prince Avalanche isn’t for everyone. For an hour and a half film it can seem incredibly long. A lot of it is silent as the two “enjoy the silence,” and the long conversations can come off as somewhat pretentious. Green also enjoys focusing the camera on insects and other animals within the forest, which is akin to Terence Malick but can add to an interminable runtime.
Prince Avalanche doesn’t live up to the hype of being the best movie of the year, but it is a painful, meditative exploration of the human psyche. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch give luminescent and sharp performances that will change your opinions on them. It’s worth a watch if you’re interested in Green’s work and want to watch him return to what he knows best: people.
Prince Avalanche comes to theaters in select cities and VOD on August 9th.