After directing a trio of potent Southern tales (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow) that dissected the darker sides of childhood and romance, David Gordon Green unexpectedly went Hollywood. His aesthetic about-face was one of the more drastic in film history; Green went from making hypnotic character studies to thoughtless genre hybrids like Pineapple Express and The Sitter. Only his medieval pot fantasy Your Highness contained the guts of his earlier features, even if it often spilled them all out onto the floor with gory special effects.
Despite Green's shift to the mainstream, he's remained a director who revisits themes over and over again. His latest film, Prince Avalanche—opening Friday, Aug. 9, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is most definitely a return to early obsessions, bringing the focus back to camaraderie, trust and loyalty. It's a shaggy film about male bonding that grows in feeling as it unfolds.
Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) spend the opening moments of Prince Avalanche in silence, waking up and drinking their coffee while Green's camera watches them in wide-angle. They are alone in the Texas woods for the summer, escaping the hustle and bustle of civilization as highway maintenance workers repainting yellow street lines and hammering in signposts. It's 1988, one year after an epic fire swept through this forest landscape, scorching 43,000 acres and killing four people.
At first, Alvin and Lance feel as distant from each other as they are from their normal lives. Alvin retreats into the silence of the forest on his weekend leave while Lance hightails it home to try and meet women at a nightclub. They're avoiding reality in different ways, and Prince Avalanche takes its time in defining the exact boundaries of their characters, often through comedic means.
What initially seems an acidic buddy comedy eventually turns melodic in nature. The sounds and creatures of the forest make an impact on their experience, filling the void of conversation when Alvin can't speak of his crumbling relationship with Lance's older sister, or when Lance finally realizes the futility of his own contrived sexual ego.
Along the way, the two men come across a lonely woman cleaning out the remains of her burnt-down house and a local truck driver who gives them booze. It's in these suspended moments of reflection that Prince Avalanche reveals itself to be a lovely story of otherworldly souls moving through the forest in tandem, all searching for the solace necessary to move on. Roving shots of the countryside only add to this sense of shared melancholy and spiritual restlessness, casting a beautiful spell in the process.
The specter of death hangs heavily over the film. You can feel it in the ashes of broken trees and the image of a turtle crushed on the side of the highway. These visuals don't overtly reference the demise of nature, but they're keen reminders of mortality. It's an important differentiation that Alvin and Lance consider during the course of the movie, ultimately allowing them to share the same ideological space despite their difference in age and demeanor.
Prince Avalanche gives Rudd and Hirsch, both talented actors, the necessary platform to express vulnerability and uncertainty without glorifying their suffering or buffoonery. Amid all the passive-aggressive banter and wisecracks, these actors create a defined subtext for characters who could have easily come across as simplistic man-children.
As Prince Avalanche fades to black, it's hard to not be haunted by its more ghostly qualities. The great final sequence expresses these ideas in a sublime way, bringing peaceful levity to a place once ravaged by trauma and loss. Here, in the quiet solitude, Alvin and Lance realize that living goes beyond breathing and eating and arguing. It's a matter of appreciating the forest for the trees.
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