SIFF Film Review – Prince Avalanche
As a director, David Gordon Green has one of the most curious and diverse careers going these days. After beginning his career with critical praise for his indie dramas (George Washington, All the Real Girls), he has spent the last half-decade working in mainstream shock comedy (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, Eastbound & Down). Despite the powerful pull of major mainstream work and the easy financial motivation, now he seems to be returning to his roots with the indie film Prince Avalanche.
Set in 1988 in the middle of nowhere, Prince Avalanche follows two men painting traffic lines in an area that has been decimated by fire. The story centers around veteran road worker Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend’s brother Lance (Emile Hirsch), whom Alvin has gotten the job as a courtesy to his girlfriend. Eventually, the isolation from the outside world brings the men’s true feelings to the surface, and a real understanding of each other begins to develop.
The film is inspired by the obscure Icelandic film Either Way (2011), from director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. Green’s decision to use this as the basis for an American adaptation seems strange, but is actually quite fitting when you look at it through the context of his style as a filmmaker—the movie is an intense character study. Green’s career has been highlighted by unique characters and experimental storytelling. Besides a few extras sprinkled at the end, there are only four real cast members throughout the entire movie, and those beyond Rudd and Hirsch have maybe fifteen minutes of screentime combined. Similarly to the recent Much Ado About Nothing, the film’s creation floated under the radar; obviously this one won’t have quite the fanfare of Joss Whedon’s film, but it is clearly a passion project for the director. It is amazing that today, in the age of the internet, a project can still catch people off guard.
It is best to describe the movie as a slice of life story. While there are a few major plot moments, the majority of the time is spent with Alvin and Lance learning to understand and appreciate each other. While they are brought together by their mutual relationship with Lance’s sister Madison (voiced by Lynn Shelton), she is really only there to drive the plot forward rather than to be a key player in the storyline. Due to the nature of their job, the men are incredibly isolated. They are forced to spend much of the movie looking introspectively at themselves, causing them to re-evaluate their goals, loves, and, ultimately, their relationship to each other. Much like the characters’ situation, isolation is a big character in the movie; Green does a great job of including the audience in the experience. You spend your time in the isolation with the characters, and feel them losing touch with the outside world.
The film is a powerful reminder of how good a dramatic actor Paul Rudd can be. His career, understandably, has been highlighted by his comedies—40 Year Old Virgin and Anchorman instantly pop to mind—but one the most beautiful scenes of this movie is just of him walking around the remnants of a house that has burned down. It is extremely unlikely that he will win many, if any, awards for the role, but the part is the kind of understated perfection that really reinforces that not all great acting performances require crying or some dramatic speech. Similarly, the film is a reminder of how engaging Emile Hirsch can be. While he gained acclaim in Into the Wild, it seems most people know him from his less impressive work, like Speed Racer. Hirsch definitely gets to be the comedic relief (which I think is great; I think The Girl Next Door is an underappreciated comedy), but his dramatic work in the movie is an amazing reminder of how good he has been for so long, when he hasn’t even turned30 His character also brings the darker edge to the story, which is a nice dichotomy.
As thoughtful and well-made as Prince Avalanche is, it will certainly not be a crowd-pleaser like Green’s more recent movies. This is very much an indie movie, and you can definitely appreciate the European roots of the script. It is slow-paced and methodical, and, unlike the trailer, which seemed to put a bit of a comedic spin on the story, it isn’t really a comedy. I enjoyed the movie, but even I thought its 94-minute runtime felt like a couple hours. People with short attention spans will probably have trouble. Also, as I mentioned previously, the plot is a bit light, closer to a slice-of-life concept than a traditional narrative. If you aren’t happy just meeting and experiencing characters, then this will probably end up being a slog.
Ultimately, Prince Avalanche feels more like an experiment than a narrative feature. It certainly is an engaging experiment, but it is going to be appreciated by a small and passionate niche. Films like this make you feel like a more refined moviegoer, but don’t provide the easy entertainment value of most mainstream fare. If you think you can handle the offbeat storytelling, then the film is worth checking out; otherwise, you’re probably better off sticking with something easier to digest, like Elysium.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director David Gordon Green at SIFF 2013.