Saturday, February 08, 2014

Prince Avalanche

PRINCE AVALANCHE (David Gordon Green, 2013)

PRINCE AVALANCHE can easily be assigned a narrative marking it as a return to writer-director David Gordon Green’s roots.  After beginning his career with Terrence Malick-indebted independent films that include GEORGE WASHINGTON and ALL THE REAL GIRLS, Green shifted to making ’80s-reminiscent studio comedies like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.  The departure from his early work and poor critical reception of THE SITTER and YOUR HIGHNESS fueled the conventional wisdom that Green had lost his way.  Following up those misfires with the small scale drama-comedy PRINCE AVALANCHE would seem to confirm such opinions, but the return to a lyrical style simply provides a better vessel for the weird sense of humor that runs through his work instead of Green’s confession of past creative waywardness.  

The mismatched road crew of Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) spend the summer of 1988 living and working in central Texas’ woods to fix the damage the previous year’s wildfires caused.  The work week requires staying in a tent in the middle of nowhere while performing repetitive tasks such as driving posts and putting stripes and reflectors on the road, but they’re free to make the long drive into town during the weekend.  

Alvin thrives in isolation.  He relishes the opportunity to better himself and to embrace a traditional concept of rugged masculinity that includes supporting his girlfriend and child back in the city.  Alvin carried out the work on his own in the spring and would have been content to keep it that way except he wanted to do his girlfriend a favor by employing her brother.  Lance is less enamored of the solitude, especially with the lack of female company.  When quitting time on Friday arrives, he takes off for civilization while Alvin sets up camp in their next spot.  As far away as they are from anyone, though, they’re still forced to confront their existential fears.  

The Sundance-friendly male bonding story, Tim Orr’s handsome cinematography of a scorched landscape, and Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo’s evocative score signal a serious film.  Alvin acts like he’s making a sacrifice even though he’s really doing what he wants and threatening a relationship he claims to hold dear.  For all of the signposts of solemnity, PRINCE AVALANCHE teases the mythopoetic men’s movement.  Alvin and Lance are outfitted to recall Nintendo’s Mario Bros., and when Lance bellows his co-worker’s name, it’s clearly intended as a reference to Alvin and the Chipmunks.  Like the ashes Lance smears on his face to simulate war paint, Alvin’s inflated pride in his survival skills and maybe even his bushy moustache are funny signifiers of what they think it means to be men.

While Green pokes fun at exaggerated masculine characteristics, PRINCE AVALANCHE still considers a man’s responsibility to others while feeling the tug for independence and adventure.  Rudd registers the confusion and pain of a good, caring person who thinks he needs to live up to a truck commercial’s version of manliness. Hirsch locates the soft spots in a character slowly awakening to the fact that he’s running up against the limitations of carrying on like a younger man.  The modest jousting between Alvin and Lance and the respect that builds gives them the chance to discover what manhood can be without having to save the world or get the woman.

Although Green adds poetic flourishes, like slow motion montages, PRINCE AVALANCHE works best when he focuses on direct, honest talk.  The most touching scene features Alvin’s conversation with a lady (Joyce Payne) sifting through the remains of her home.  Having lost everything she has in the fire, she wonders what evidence will remain of the life she has lived.  The answer for her, or for anyone, is the relationships shared and the memories passed along.  PRINCE AVALANCHE isn’t an inordinately profound film or close to Green’s best, but it integrates his indie origin and recent mainstream sensibilities in a mostly satisfying way.

Grade: B-

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