“True love is like a ghost: everyone talks about it, but few have ever seen it.”
Such poetic observations, offered by the contemplative introvert Alvin (Paul Rudd), pepper David Gordon Green’s latest film, a movie about an unlikely pair of buddies in an unlikely location. Green’s movie debuted at Sundance earlier this year and has been garnering critical acclaim since its release, including the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for Best Director. Prince Avalanche is loosely based upon a 2011 Icelandic film called Either Way.
Set in the isolated wilderness of central Texas in the summer of 1987 after a terrible wildfire has ravaged the area, Prince Avalanche offers a meditative and meticulous glimpse into the lives of two men, Alvin and Alvin’s girlfriend’s brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch), who spend their summer painting lines on the country highway that runs through the desecrated forest.
Alvin, driven, outdoorsy, and thoroughly uptight, and Lance, immature, unskilled, and perpetually horny, butt heads constantly, arguing over everything from what cassette tape to play (Alvin insists on hearing his German language tapes; Lance likes hard rock) to how to pass the long evenings after their work is done for the day. Always bored and ill at ease in nature, Lance lives for the weekends when he can return to the city, where he hopes each weekend to get laid. Alvin, by contrast, chooses to remain in the wilderness, claiming to prefer the quiet atmosphere, where he fishes, hunts, and writes long letters to his girlfriend, Madison, back home.
Both men are battling emotions they can’t articulate or face, and the film slowly moves toward the eruption of a dual crisis. Alvin, for all of his talk of self-reliance, reveals himself to be highly self-medicated, popping pills and passing into a state of numbness shortly after Lance leaves for the weekend, while Lance, having failed to score in the city, returns to the woods on Monday morning in tears of disappointment. When Madison breaks up with Alvin in a letter, Lance’s insensitivity finally pushes Alvin over the edge, and the tension between the two men explodes into a fight — the kind of juvenile (and realistic) fight where there is more running, threatening, and hurt feelings than punching. The crisis, not surprisingly, results in a stronger bond between the two, and the pair begin to display sincere affection for one another, a turn of events aided by a helluva lot of moonshine.
Male meltdowns have been common fare in movies of the past decade, with films as diverse as The Darjeeling Limited, A Serious Man, and The Tree of Life showing various portraits of men in crisis. Yet, for all of its familiar moments and moves, Prince Avalanche creates a unique and captivating story that stays with you long after the final credits fade.
The film’s success owes itself to superb acting by Rudd and Hirsch, and to the film’s unusual stylistic elements that lure the viewer into its narrative world. Marking a return for David Gordon Green to his indie-film roots (Snow Angels, All the Real Girls), Prince Avalanche paces itself, its slow rhythm echoing the monotonous and repetitive task of painting lines that the men face each day.
Green’s film also blends a strong dose of reality with uncanny magical realism. The interactions Alvin and Lance have with the other characters they meet in the vast wilderness, a truck driver and an old woman, seem so surreal that we are left wondering if they might be ghosts. Indeed, the old woman who helplessly returns to the site of her burned-down home tells Alvin through tears, “Sometimes I feel like I’m digging through my own ashes.” The film suggests she very well might be.
But life persists, and perhaps that is what the film most eloquently captures. Against the charred landscape, flutterings of life appear in the form of birds roosting in the truck, raindrops falling on a creek, and, finally, children playing by the side of the road.
Don’t leave before the credits end or you’ll miss Rudd and Hirsch singing their original, highly improvised rock ballad, “Bad Connection,” a song so awesome it should have been a hit in the ’80s. The lyrics are clearly ironic — these two actors definitely have chemistry.