"Prince Avalanche" Stands Out From The Crowd

David Gordon Green didn’t have a great 2011. The indie filmmaker turned studio comedy helmer oversaw one major flop that year, “Your Highness” (which I saw and loathed), and another equally maligned pic that barely made its money back, “The Sitter” (which I didn’t see). So, in 2012 he set out to get back to his roots, making a small indie feature mostly in secret, in under three weeks time. That film became “Prince Avalanche,” and as far as comebacks go, it’s a pretty good one.

Adapted from a little known Icelandic film called “Either Way,” “Prince Avalanche” follows the story of two highway workers during the summer of 1988. Living in almost complete isolation in the wilderness of Texas – a wilderness that’s been ravaged by wildfires – Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) spend their days painting lines and hammering posts and their nights sleeping uncomfortably close to each other in a small tent.

Alvin is an aloof man, reticent and dedicated to his work, but eager to form some kind of bond with Lance, his girlfriend’s lovably obtuse brother. The latter is primarily concerned with his weekends off, most of which lead to failed sexual escapades. As these stories are mournfully relayed back to Alvin, we can’t help but feel the innate intimacy between two people alone in the woods, and the awkward rapport between them only drives home the film’s sheen of authenticity.

That we never see these characters’ trips into town is important, making their real lives seem like distant fantasies and their time in the wilderness symbolic of their true selves – lonely and vulnerable, each in an uncomfortable phase of his life, likely caught up in different levels of existential crisis. No, there’s no gay element to the story – something that a more distracted filmmaker might have tried to shoehorn in – and the film doesn’t require it. The stark nature of the narrative – and visuals, for that matter – works best stripped down to its core, free of any added subtext.

But while “Prince Avalanche” is a serious artistic statement – a gorgeous juxtaposition of an impassioned phone call and the rolling gray and yellow of a Texas highway really stands out – it’s also not without its laughs. Rudd commendably pulls back from the kind of broad comedy he’s used to, giving Hirsch space to work his magic, and when the two combine for a drunken, impromptu songwriting session, the resulting “Bad Connection” wonderfully and hilariously summarizes all that’s come before it. By starting to own their alienation, they strike the first blow against their own unhappiness, building each other up in the process.

The film features only two additional speaking roles, both short on screen time but essential to the fabric of the narrative. In his final role, the late Lance LeGault plays a kindly but frank truck driver who befriends Lance, while Joyce Payne plays a grieving lady who’s recently seen her house burn to the ground. The way these characters interconnect – with each other and with Alvin and Lance – is haunting and poignant, and Alvin’s interaction with the lady (she’s credited as “Lady”) isn’t something I’ll soon forget.

In fact, the more I write about “Prince Avalanche,” the more anxious I am to revisit it. There’s some terrific stuff going on here, its minimalist bent and gorgeous photography combining to form a quietly immense dramedy that should age very well. It suffers from the occasional narrative lull, but considering that its entire running time is anchored by two performances, its accomplishments as a character study vastly outweigh its shortcomings. With Rudd and Hirsch turning in two of the most genuine performances of the year, I can’t recommend “Prince Avalanche” enough to more discerning audiences. It’s not for everyone, but those who embrace it are unlikely to ever let go.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 9, 2013 (Limited / Video On Demand)
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriter: David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault, Joyce Payne
MPAA Rating: R (for some sexual content)