Prince Avalanche, a charming oddity starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, often feels like an al fresco stage play. It’s an intimate two-hander with lots of dialogue, humour and poignant revelations, set against a backdrop of rugged woodland beauty.
It also represents a meeting of the two minds of director David Gordon Green. The 38-year-old established himself in his 20s with such films as George Washington and All the Real Girls, when he was hailed as a future Terrence Malick. For fans of that period, the new film is a halfway return to form.
For fans of Green’s more recent, dope-hazed studio comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, The Sitter), Prince Avalanche has plenty of broad moments, though it’s somewhat lacking in bongs and boobs.
Two road workers, Alvin (Rudd) and Lance (Hirsch), are assigned to spend a summer painting yellow dividing lines and setting up reflecting poles on a stretch of remote Texas road (it’s shot in Bastrop State Park outside Austin). Camping at night, they share meals and discuss sex, philosophy and loneliness. Alvin plays German language tapes and writes long letters home to his fiancée (it’s 1988, pre-e-mail).
Alvin, a fussy supervisor who fancies himself a modern Thoreau, has hired Lance, the younger brother of Alvin’s fiancée. We hear, in voiceover, his letters to his fiancée, when he describes the solitary pleasures of their isolation in the woods. Both Rudd, a classically trained actor best known for his comedies, and Hirsch, who’s more used to dramatic heavy-lifting (Into the Wild, Alpha Dog), mix it up nicely here, with moments of comedy and vulnerability. Neither character is insightful, but their gradual acknowledgement of their limitations and common helplessness is touching.
For example, Lance is bored and horny, and desperate to reach the weekend when he can go into town. He brags about his prowess with women and talent on the dance floor, though, in more vulnerable moments, he admits he has become too “old and fat” to compete with the younger guys.
“Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely,” pronounces Alvin.
“It isn’t?” says an incredulous Lance.
Though Green’s touch is all over it, Prince Avalanche is not entirely an original film. It is an English adaptation of a 2011 Iceland drama, Either Way, by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, shrewdly adapted by Green to an American context: The men are working in an area ravaged by a 1987 wildfire, a situation that adds poignancy and gravity to the two bickering nitwits and their job of mending the damaged world.
While it evokes other men-in-nature films, such as Gus Van Sant’s conceptual Gerry or even Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, it’s also reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist drama, Waiting for Godot. Alvin and Lance have recurring encounters with strangers: A cheerfully confused old man in a truck (the late Lance LeGault) periodically stops by, praises their work and offers them his homemade whisky; and when Lance finally goes away for the weekend, Alvin meets an older woman (Joyce Payne) who takes Alvin on a tour of the ruins of her charred home. The two older people seem to be connected to each other, or perhaps they’re ghosts.
Prince Avalanche is more tantalizing than satisfying. It pulls its punches by not committing to be either serious or funny, and the characters’ persistent naiveté can get tiresome. Yet it’s a movie full of hope, bolstered by evidence that a promising film director can get back to doing work that matters.