After a few detours into more visible Hollywood comedies that worked (Pineapple Express) and that didn’t (Your Highness), writer/director David Gordon Green moves back into more well-tread territory with Prince Avalanche. Reportedly made with a budget of around $700,000, the film relies on subdued but refined performances from two actors working with a rhythmic script and simple, repetitive locations that are absorbing and always interesting to study.
In an isolated area of Texas, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend’s kid brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) work as a road crew duo, repainting lines and hammering in posts along a stretch of desolate wooded motorway. Ravaged by unexplained wildfires, the burned out and occasionally lush forest engulfs the pair as they travel the road in their tiny jeep and supply trailer.
Taking pride in an honest day’s work, Alvin sees himself as something of a sophisticate, satisfied that he knows more about the job, and life, than dimwit Lance. It’s doubtful anyone outside this unique situation would view him as highly as he views himself. Letters to his love reveal a posturing affectation that is self-important and charming at the same time. Lance is a slacker who can’t believe anyone could handle this job for an entire summer and constantly opines about getting back into town to woo young women. He gets to town for a weekend, but we don’t follow him – we only hear his tale of disappointment after he returns to the wilderness.
Two actors that have shown a propensity for exaggeration at times play it mostly straight here, adding gentle touches of character flair when appropriate. Isolated in the backwoods, the environment becomes a character itself, taking on a meditative quality that in its simplicity reveals more about the characters in how they interact with it. Monotony is broken on a few occasions by a trucker (Lance LeGault) who always seems to be traveling down the road in the same direction, and meets Alvin and Lance when they’re most in need of chilling out – Lance’s simple mind overloaded and Alvin‘s growing relationship anxiety getting the best of him. The trucker is always quick with a quip and is flush with liquor to ply the pair, altering their moods. His appearances near a sort of gruff mysticism but don’t cross the line into pomposity.
What comes very close to that line and may push just past it is the mysterious elderly woman first encountered by Alvin as she sorts through the remains of her burned out home. Seen later wandering through the landscape, complete with bright red hat (not a hood), it’s implied that she’s only seen by Alvin and Lance – her presence seemingly representing their feelings of being emotionally adrift, even if they can’t realize that for themselves.
Though there’s not a whole lot that happens in Prince Avalanche, there’s enough going on to sustain the feature. Green never feels the need to ramp things up, letting the setting and his actors string together moments that when taken together add up to much more than when viewed episodically. The filmmaker has united the arthouse beats of his earlier works with the out-there humor of his bigger budget movies, creating something that is bizarrely existential though grounded and often oddly hypnotic. Where that road ultimately goes I don’t know, but watching Alvin and Lance work their way down it, and through some of their issues, is an interesting trip.