Monday, December 23, 2013

David Gordon Green Finds Tonal Harmony in "Prince Avalanche"

Prince Avalanche offers a winning, low-key sense of humor.
At first glance, Prince Avalanche doesn’t seem like much. 

It’s a modest ’80s-set indie about two mismatched road workers who are conducting maintenance on a highway through an area that was recently ravaged by wildfire. They spend the bulk of their days painting traffic lines and hammering in reflector posts, and at night they sleep side by side in a tent. They also spend an awful lot of time bickering and bonding too, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.

It’s a movie I expect some would label as boring, but one I haven’t been able to shake. It feels an awful lot like a stage play that Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter might write if they were in a goofy mood, except it relies heavily on its expansive locale (it was filmed in Bastrop County, Texas shortly after the massive wildfire there in 2011) and is actually a remake of an Icelandic comedy called Either Way.

The film has been written and directed by David Gordon Green, an enigma of a filmmaker who first made a name for himself with dramatic indie darlings like All the Real Girls and Snow Angels before taking a hard left turn into big studio bro comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness. With Prince Avalanche, he seems to have married these two sensibilities, crafting a film that is somehow contemplative, lyrical and silly all at once. 

This is a movie about the illusions people can have about who they are and what happens when those illusions are tested. It stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as Alvin and Lance, two self-regarding chumps with different takes on masculinity. Alvin fancies himself a true man, the kind of guy who has mastery over life skills (i.e. gutting a fish, tying a knot), enjoys the serenity of nature and has sacrificed time with the woman he loves (Lance’s sister Madison) to go out into the wild and make money so they can run away together. Meanwhile, Lance thinks of himself as a stud with great dance skills and is exclusively concerned with getting back into town so he can “get the little man squeezed.” 

Looking awfully Mario-like.
Of course, most of that is bullshit. Lance can’t dance and he’s pretty much a clueless rube, while Alvin isn’t the noble figure he imagines. A key scene in which he finds himself alone on a burnt out property and mimes his version of domestic bliss is telling. Even then Alvin doesn’t interact with his girlfriend; instead she’s on the phone, and so he goes downstairs and sits on a rocker, happily in silence.

Costuming plays a key role in hinting both characters aren’t the men they think they are. It’s hard to believe a man’s man or a ladies’ man would be caught dead in the bright Mario Bros-like overalls* these guys spend the bulk of the film wearing. However, there are plenty of other details along the way – things like Alvin wearing his tool belt backwards – that also show the cracks in the façade.
* In addition to the overalls, Rudd sports a mustache in the film, which only works to further enhance the Mario connection. But for anyone who’s played a Mario game over the last decade or so, what puts the joke over the top is Alvin’s answer to the question of what skill he would perform if he were in a Ms. America-type pageant – the triple jump.

Hirsch reminds why he was such a hot up-and-comer a few years ago, injecting this dummy with a real groundswell of emotion. He has a five or six page monologue in this thing that’s so funny and so sad all at once, and his ace delivery makes one hope he gets better opportunities than shitty TV remakes of Bonnie and Clyde moving forward. 

However, this is Rudd’s show, and he gets a chance to flex acting muscles he doesn’t normally use. Despite his success in mainstream comedy, Rudd’s a classically trained actor who has shown his stage-honed skills on film before – notably in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. Here, he excels at portraying a man who views himself in terms he can’t live up to. 
Joyce Payne adds a palpable sense of loss to her section of the film.
Beyond the two leads, there isn’t much in the way of a cast here. The late Lance LeGault plays a truck driver who stops in on the duo from time to time, offering some sort of homemade moonshine along with odd advice. And then there’s Joyce Payne, a real-life victim of the Bastrop County wildfires who Green put in the film on a whim after meeting her and hearing her story. Alvin stumbles upon her burnt out house during a weekend alone and the scene that follows is powerhouse of emotion and pain. Her appearances later in the film hint she may be a ghost, which seems sort of out of place, but also sort of not. 

The soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky adds a great deal to the film, as does the landscape. Fortunately the film was shot in order, so Green is able to document a slight rejuvenation in nature that reflects that of the characters.

Overall, Prince Avalanche is a total triumph of tone. It’s a key film in the evolution of Green’s contrasting sensibilities, and it’s easy to believe that if ever there was a director who could pull off the long-in-development adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, it’s Green (he was at one time linked to it). It’s far more likely his future projects will be totally out of left field, and that’s pretty cool too. A-