David Gordon Green never really left us; he was even there in the 80s-VHS looseness of his recent experiments in Apatow-gang broad comedy, which started with Pineapple Express and continued with a couple of less well-regarded (but somewhat underrated) efforts. Regardless of the woodsy frolicking of Your Highness or The Sitter‘s mis-en-scene, some will mislabel Prince Avalanche the return of the “real” Green because it bears some superficial resemblance to his earlier indies. Of course, if you want to talk superficial resemblances, it also stars Apatow player Paul Rudd; the movie may be beautiful, but its comic spirit has plenty in common with Green’s newer films, too.
Rudd plays Alvin, nominal supervisor at a very lonely job: painting traffic lines and posting reflective plastic on a road in an area of Texas that has been ravaged by wildfires. As the movie opens, Alvin has just brought on Lance (Emile Hirsch) to help out, as a favor to Madison (Alvin’s girlfriend and Lance’s sister). They’re already at odds over Alvin’s violation of what Lance calls their “equal time boombox agreement” (the movie is set in 1988)—Alvin wants to listen to his language tapes, which make Lance drowsy. That’s their relationship in a buddy-picture nutshell: Alvin earnestly, awkwardly, and somewhat pompously seeks to improve his upstanding self, while Lance grouses and wants to have more fun. Ninety percent or so of the dialogue, written by Green in that familiar off-kilter phrasing, comes from them; only a handful of other characters have any lines at all. This sparseness carries over to their environment: they’re surrounded by endless road, but encounter few cars, and endless trees, but many stripped to bark and branches. In some shots, Alvin and Lance may as well be walking around on the moon, and Prince Avalanche is perhaps the fullest expression of Green’s fascination of the place where nature meets post-industrial rubble.
Striking compositions from Green’s longtime cinematographer Tim Orr capture this invisible line, like one of yellow highway paint spilling into a stream, keep the movie from becoming a stagy two-hander. Instead, the stage-style isolation brings pathos to the comedy, which is substantial despite the melancholic overtones; it’s like the funny, fuck-around bits of Green’s earlier movies like All the Real Girls, or the more digressive bits of dialogue from Pineapple Express. Green was often compared to Malick in the first section of his career, and the campsite where Alvin and Lance make their temporary home recalls the tree-fort weirdness of Badlands—though Green has never been as dreamy or rapturous as his filmmaking ancestor, and these characters don’t have the searching soulfulness of many Malick heroes (or the quiet mania of the couple in Badlands). They’re closer to the ground, and Green flirts with condescending to their petty, sometimes clueless concerns.
But the movie is too funny and, even in its conflicts, too chummy to cross that line. Rudd, perhaps the most versatile comic leading man in the business, adds another note to his repertoire as a man whose desire to be seen as a provider and an authority figure may exceed his abilities, and Hirsch, a little doughier than usual, betrays no vanity as his goofy protégé. I didn’t even miss Paul Schneider or Danny McBride, who might’ve played a modified version of this dynamic earlier in Green’s career. In his more recent studio comedies, the seams between the comedy and the poetry sometimes showed; with Prince Avalanche, he hasn’t so much rediscovered his indie calling as remembered how to make the seams a part of the movie again.
This screens tonight and again on Friday and Sunday. Click here for more info.