David Gordon Green, with his debut feature George Washington ensconced in the Criterion Collection, seemed poised to be the next great American filmmaker. His second feature, All the Real Girls, built on that promise, launching careers and further superlatives, and his third, Undertow, was produced by his hero and reigning American auteur Terrence Malick. His career as the next serious filmmaker seemed set until a string of studio pot-smokin comedies, Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter, befuddled those following his career. In Prince Avalanche he has returned to his indie roots, eschewing the loud zaniness of the likes of Seth Rogan, James Franco and Jonah Hill for the more subdued antics of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch.
Prince Avalanche, based on the Icelandic film Either Way by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, is set in central Texas in the summer of 1988 after a forest fire requires the repainting of traffic lanes along interminable and winding country roads. Alvin, played by Paul Rudd, has taken the dull task with aplomb, filling the hours with German language tapes and reflections of solitude. His partner, and potential brother-in-law, Lance (Hirsch) is far less enthused at being away from the city and its “fresh” parties and increasingly becomes an irritant to his sister’s boyfriend.
The movie is shot by Green’s collaborator Tim Orr whose eye is constantly being drawn away by rabbit trails: shots of charred forest, blossoms and bugs. This habit gives such a focused and simple story a wider scope, a beckoning to the grander scale. Hinting at a renewal of life all along the margins despite destruction.
The tale, ostensibly, is a coming-of-middle-age story, wherein the two characters grapple with love.; Lance, in his flighty post-teen adulthood, is keen on the physical act. At the beginning he complains how horny he is in nature. He questions his own ability to go the entire summer without having his “little man squeezed” whereas the slightly older Alvin is stoic in his abstinence. He is happy to spend his free time reflecting on himself, planning the future and “doing right” by those he loves. He diligently sends home money in the letters he writes to his girlfriend, supporting her and the child she’s had by another man.
The fire at the beginning injects a sense of loss that is carried throughout the film. Love, we know from ancient sources, is fire; whether destructive or constructive, whether cleansing or clearing, love sets us aflame. That the loss in fire signals the loss in love is depicted in a scene in which Alvin reenacts a homecoming on a burnt out foundation.
The ground is covered in ash, drywall, warped plastic and glass. Alvin looks dismayed. He ascends the stairs and opens an imaginary door. He calls for the wife, the quotidian comments: Honey? Sweetie? where are you? smells good in here… He opens the oven, he fiddles with charred knick-knacks, he jogs up imaginary stairs. As he does this there is a tension that grows. What started out as a cute bit of pantomime becomes ominous. At the beginning there was no house, his play began and a house leapt to life, but the wife was gone: had she left? was the marriage over?
He finds her upstairs, in the bedroom on the phone. He apologizes for interrupting her, tells her not to hang up and trots back downstairs. There is a relief, he’s found her, she wasn’t gone, she cannot speak to him, but she’s there. He finds a surviving chair and sits, the pater familias at rest, his domain secure, while sitting there he says, “That was nice.” And the home life so recently created comes down again.
Complimenting this is a quiet ghost story. Whether any real ghosts appear is debatable, but a woman moves through the film, a figure of loss, both seen and unseen, embodying love. The unseen love interests of Lance and Alvin also operate as ghosts. They are spoken of, but not seen. Early on Alvin concludes a letter to his girlfriend with: “True love is just like a ghost, people talk about it but very few have actually seen it.” Alvin talks about love plenty, whether he has seen it is debatable.
Paul Rudd throws himself into the serious work of stifling his own laughter in his role as the taciturn Alvin. Emile Hirsch, best known for his role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, is earnest and convincingly numbskulled. Their easy mirth as they interact goes a long way in driving the narrative forward, built upon the steady rhythms of the score from Explosions in the Sky, neighbors of David Gordon Green and fellow Texans.
The curious title, while haphazardly chosen by Green, draws together the Dionysian challenge of Apollonian order that Alvin and Lance embody. Alvin delights in the strict duty of lines and the manly outdoor activities, while Lance prefers wild parties and the presence of ladies. Like the threat of riot to rule and the cliff of hubris over humility, the prince of lines must be careful or else be buried under the hotmess of human conflict.
While the crisis is never resolved and catharsis comes through drunken revelry, the call of “doing right” has been sounded, and the movie ends with Alvin and Lance in high spirits and renewed vigor. Like the slow recovery from the fire, the lesson seems, that life recovers perhaps with scars, perhaps with regret, perhaps haunted with ghosts.