Ugh. This weekend.
I realize that I’ve fallen behind in the past few days. Partly, it’s because I was hit by a strange and sudden fever earlier this week and I’ve been trying to take it easy. Mostly, it’s because this weekend’s mainstream releases have gotten reviews that are varying degrees of disappointing. Of course, I could still watch and review any of them, as I hopefully will very soon. However, this summer seems to be an awful year for mainstream releases and a great one for arthouse releases. With that in mind, I instead sought out an indie picture that’s been picking up a surprising amount of praise.
I’m really glad I did.
Prince Avalanche begins with a title card describing a 1987 Texas wildfire. Trees were burned down over hundreds of thousands of acres, over a thousand homes were destroyed, and four lives were lost. The cause was never discovered.
In case you’re wondering, I couldn’t find any record of such a wildfire actually happening in 1987, but a remarkably similar case happened in Bastrop County back in September of 2011. The important thing is that this movie wasn’t based on a real story. It was, however, based on an obscure little movie called Either Way, which only saw release in two Icelandic theaters and a handful of film festivals.
Oh, and as long as I’m digressing, the title means exactly what you think it means: Nothing. Reportedly, it came in a dream to writer/director David Gordon Green, the very same guy who previously made Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. How he went from those crass comedies to this introspective dramedy, I have no idea.
(Side note: Danny McBride also appears in the credits as an exec-producer. I have no idea why Green got him involved or what he did for this production.)
Anyway, the story takes place a year after the wildfire. Efforts are being made to regrow the forest and sort through the wreckage, but our story focuses on the reconstruction of a truck road that ran through all those miles of forest. Alvin (Paul Rudd) has been hired by the state to walk along the new forest road, painting lines, caulking reflectors, pounding in posts and signs, etc. Needless to say, it’s long, tiring, monotonous work. So Alvin went and hired his girlfriend’s brother (Lance, played by Emile Hirsch) for assistance.
I don’t think it would be appropriate to say that Alvin and Lance hate each other, but their initial relationship is rather… grudging, let’s say. Alvin thinks that Lance is a horny good-for-nothing city boy who doesn’t appreciate the solitude of the great outdoors. Lance thinks that Alvin is old and boring, with no idea of how to have a good time. Even so, they seem determined to make the arrangement work, if only for the sake of Madison (the aforementioned link between them, voiced by Lynn Shelton).
As for the supporting cast… well, there really isn’t any. Madison is pretty much entirely an offscreen presence, and Lance LeGault (who died last September, by the way) plays a drunken truck driver who occasionally drops by for some booze and comic relief. There’s also Joyce Payne as an anonymous woman who spends a heart-wrenching scene going through the ashes of her old home.
(EDIT: Upon further research, I discovered that Payne wasn’t an actress and she wasn’t playing a character. When the filmmakers found her, she really had been spending the past nine months sifting through the ashes of her old home. Please excuse me while I go curl up in the corner and cry myself to sleep.)
Aside from those footnotes, this whole film is basically 94 minutes of Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd doing road work and camping in the middle of a burned-out wasteland. I know that sounds like it would be a painful experience to sit through, but I promise it isn’t.
By far the movie’s greatest strength is that it works as a meditation on the contrast between loneliness and company. It’s all about those times when we need to be alone and when we need other people. For example, we see that Alvin deeply enjoys the calm isolation of being out in the woods. That’s not to say he doesn’t like people, but he shows a clear preference for committed long-term relationships. Compare that to Lance, who’s all about the one-night stand. He needs to be around large groups of people without ever tying himself down to any particular friend or lover.
Both of these men think they’ve got everything all figured out, but their lives back in civilization don’t stop while Alvin and Lance are away. Their social attitudes come back to bite these characters in some very unexpected ways, leaving them with no one to talk to — and no one to take their frustrations out on — except themselves and each other. In the end, the two have such radically differing attitudes that they test and clash with each other until they finally even out. The two get closer and help each other grow stronger in ways that are poignant, authentic, and very funny.
(Side note: It bears mentioning that yes, Lance does at one point shout “ALVIN!!!” at the top of his lungs. The archaic pop culture reference is blessedly never brought up, but it’s a nice bit of unintentional humor nonetheless.)
I don’t think I ever got the appeal of Paul Rudd as an actor, but then again, I never saw him with this much great material to work with. Rudd brings a surprising amount of pathos to the role, and he does a beautiful job with the more dramatic moments. Even so, there are some comedic scenes that greatly benefit from Rudd’s total lack of shame.
As for Emile Hirsch, the guy is developing quite a niche for himself. Between Killer Joe, Into the Wild, and this, Hirsch seems to be settling into a grungy kind of “babyface” persona. He has the interesting ability to dress himself up in dirt and sleaze, but without losing the youth and charm that make him a believable ladies’ man. In Lance’s case, the guy is clearly a punk, but not to the point where we lose all sympathy for him. Hirsch does an outstanding job with the character’s development, and his interplay with Rudd is rock-solid.
Of course, the film is not without nitpicks. The pacing tends to drag in places, particularly in the very beginning and the very end. The soundtrack is generally effective, except for a montage at the end of the first act, when the music apparently tries to be soothing and calming while turning the volume up to 11. Some rare lines were clunkers, though I understand that Green lifted some dialogue directly from Either Way, so that’s probably just a translation thing (“I ran over a very sharp object.”). The visuals include some jaw-dropping nature shots, but it also includes some brief shaky-cam shots that were way overdone.
The film was shot in 16 days on a minimal budget, and it shows. The film’s slip-ups are mercifully few and brief, but they all serve as evidence that the film was made with zero room for errors or reshoots. Still, if this is what Green can do with so little time and money, then he should be using his newfound bragging rights to their fullest extent.
I know the premise for Prince Avalanche sounds awful, but assuming the worst would be a terrible mistake. This is movie is funny, it’s very smart, and it’s often poignant enough to completely steal your heart away. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch both make the absolute most of their showcase as they illustrate all the ways that isolation and company can be used to heal and hurt.
This one comes HIGHLY recommended. If it’s playing anywhere near you on this awful weekend for movies, then I hope you know what to do.