Monday, August 12, 2013
Prince Avalanche (***)
Written for the Screen and Directed by David Gordon Green
There was once a time, before Pineapple Express and The Sitter and Your Highness, that David Gordon Green was one of the most interesting independent filmmakers in America. From George Washington to All The Real Girls, he was the master of the contemporary, ethereal Southern Gothic which has now inspired films by Lee Daniels and Jeff Nichols. But then he cashed in with Pineapple Express, and rightfully so. That was a successful stoner comedy, with great comedic performances from James Franco and Danny McBride (McBride and Green have a long relationship making projects together, and it's safe to say that McBride has been the most responsible for any monetary success Green has ever had), and I thought at the time that Green, ever the visual maestro, deserved a nice paying gig. But that was 2008 and it seems like it's been a long time since the formerly prolific filmmaker had made anything challenging.
Prince Avalanche feels like a bit of a return in this way. The film is small, with a pretty limited set of characters, and has a thoughtful relationship with its setting, which is the dilapidated wilderness of middle-of-nowhere Texas in the late 1980's. After destructive wildfires have destroyed Bastrop County, TX, hundreds of homes were destroyed. Amongst the recovery process is Alvin (Paul Rudd), a contracted road worker who works in solitude on the lonely two-way roads in the midsts of the burned down forests. He likes the time alone, it allows him to live amongst nature and read and write letters to his girlfriend, Madison, who lives in town hours away. But when he hires Madison's chubby, dim-witted brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch), to help him out on the road, suddenly Alvin finds himself babysitting an overweight, sex-starved manchild. It's not exactly the best way to just relax and enjoy the scenery.
Alvin and Lance aren't exactly made to get along. Alvin loves the isolation of his atmosphere, respecting and appreciating nature while performing his job with great determination. Lance can't wait for the weekend where he can escape back into town and sleep with any woman who'd be willing to lie with him. Lance doesn't have much discipline and doesn't care much for waking up early and finding your food in the wilderness. The kind of work that Alvin and Lance do is incredibly tedious - painting yellow lane lines in the middle of the road, caulking reflectors to the pavement, mounting mile posts - and it takes a certain kind of man to perform this kind of work effectively without going out of your mind. Alvin is definitely that kind of man. Lance is not. The two men tolerate each other most of the time, and Alvin is willing to deal with Lance as long as it makes Madison happy, but when something happens that totally blows Alvin's cool demeanor, the two mens' routine gets thrown a bit out of whack.
As I mentioned before, Prince Avalanche feels like a return to the more personal storytelling that made David Gordon Green a name to watch to begin with. But Avalanche doesn't have that brooding tone or that underlying sense of dread that George Washington or 2007's Snow Angels had (by the way, Snow Angels is won of the most tragically under-watched movies of the 2000's), and casting Paul Rudd in your movie in 2013 creates a pretty hefty obligation that your movie needs to be funny. But the movie's laughs are legitimate and come from the pathetic nature of the characters more than anything else. Rudd and Hirsch have a kind of anti-chemistry working here, with their many disagreements and arguments culminating in an often charming, occasionally hilarious relationship of errors. But their head-butting seems to rise above the Planes, Trains and Automobiles kind, never quite feeling like a buddy comedy even if their ever-predictable reconciliation by the end seems like something out of a textbook.
Prince Avalanche is a delightful little movie that is able to take the tragedy of these characters and turn it into something pleasant, the way Wes Anderson would do with his first few films (these days, Anderson likes to wallow more in the misery than he used to). It's endearing how Green is able to find beauty within the burned down ruins that inhabit the entire film. With some help from his usual cinematographer, Tim Orr, they morph this destroyed landscape and light it up to Terrence Mallick, golden hour levels. At times, Avalanche's story becomes as tedious as the work the two men are doing, but in a lot of way that fits into the personality of the story Green is trying to tell. The way Green taps into the real beauty of this story and setting, it makes you yearn for his olden days. It's his most satisfying movie in about a decade, because it reminded me that he's someone who's able to tell these kinds of stories and still be cinematic. When Green is truly realizing his vision, it's mumblecore with better camerawork and without the back-patting self-congratulations.
Paul Rudd is a performer capable of a performance like this, even though his bread and butter comes from films like Anchorman and I Love You, Man. He's consistently great, but he's shown several times in films like this and 2011's Our Idiot Brother that he could go a bit darker, and find the pain beneath the Daddy smile. Hirsch, on the other hand, has made a career out of zigging when audiences expect him to zag. At once the hot, young actor from the early 2000's, Hirsch has spent a decade finding the nooks and crannies of the casting underbelly, finding interesting projects where he can really showcase his talent even if the films themselves aren't exactly watchable. In Prince Avalanche, he packs on pounds to the point of creating an alarming resemblance to Jack Black and plays Lance dangerously dumb. But the magic of Hirsch's performance, and Green's screenplay, is how judgment is never passed. We always believe there is the possibility for Lance to redeem himself.
Rudd and Hirsch work a whole lot out with what I imagine was very little. Green is known for allowing his actors to use improvisation, and we are already aware of Rudd's ability where improv is concerned. But this movie does not have that off-the-tracks Curb Your Enthusiasm anarchy that Your Highness did. The narrative is sparse, but it's focused and the images are so stark, yet so captivating. There's a moment in the middle of the film when Rudd's Alvin visits an old woman who has come back to look through the wreckage that once was her home. Soon after, Alvin finds the burnt frame of another former home and pretends to come home to a wife and family. But the make-believe wife is on the phone and can't say hello. Even in his dreams, Rudd's life is a bit off-kilter. It's a testament to Green that he can take two characters like this, stick them in the middle of nowhere and create something so splendid to watch.