The quiet, pensive, and occasionally funny “Prince Avalanche” marks David Gordon Green’s return to dramatic material after a stint of broad comedies of varying success (the pretty good “Pineapple Express” and the deplorable “Your Highness”).
It’s the story of two road workers and their summer spent painting yellow lane lines and pounding in reflector posts along a long, rural stretch of a Texan highway. They are the solemn and contemplative Alvin (Paul Rudd), and his girlfriend’s brother – the naive, unsophisticated Lance (Emile Hirsch). Together, they clash with each other and chat about differing views on loneliness, women, and family. They stumble upon an old man that gives them liters of moonshine, and a woman that no one else seems to be able to see.
That’s about all that you need to know. “Prince Avalanche” is a slow-building charmer that can be difficult to get through early on but eventually warms into something strangely comforting. The sequences of Alvin and Lance talking and completing the roadwork are meditative, rhythmic, and quite funny in an offbeat way.
The story (directly based on a 2011 Icelandic film called “Either Way”) features only four characters that actually appear on-screen. Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) and everyone’s best friend, Paul Rudd, both play against type. While Lance is bored with the monotonous lifestyle that has the men camping in a tent each night before continuing on the highway the next morning, Rudd’s Alvin embraces the time alone. He is there “to reap the rewards of solitude.” He values the ability to fish, camp, and build a fire.
The film asks interesting questions about these two polarizing characters – why does Alvin choose to work the highway while also writing home about how much he misses his girlfriend and wishes he could be there to raise her child? What does the roadwork symbolize? Why does the film open with a title card and images of the unexplained 1988 Texas wildfire that destroyed much of the stretch of highway they’re repairing?
Along the way, Alvin and Lance run into only a couple of people. One is an older man (Lance LeGault) that gives them advice on women as well as a crate of moonshine. More curious is a woman that Alvin meets sifting through the ashes of her home taken down by the fire. She walks Alvin through the things that she valued most in her home, now destroyed, and notes, “Everything is past tense now.” This scene is startling, and has stuck with me. Later, the same woman is seen in the older man’s truck. When Alvin and Lance ask if the man knows her, he claims to not know what they’re talking about – unable to see the woman.
Mysterious quirks like this aren’t motivating the plot, they’re just part of the strange experience of briefly dipping into these characters lives. The limited scope allows you to really dig into the characters and care about them. The simplistic structure of the film reaches an incredible crescendo when they finally cut loose – drinking handles of moonshine and spraying yellow lane lines in circles along the road, pushing each other in wheelbarrows while laughing hysterically, and dumping their equipment off of a cliff – all set to a perfect score written and performed by David Wingo and post-rock group Explosions in the Sky. What a nice thing it is to occasionally visit such a cathartic, low-stake fantasy. It’s one hell of a comeback for writer/director David Gordon Green.