Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault, Joyce Payne
(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 9 Aug 2013 (Limited release); UK theatrical: (General release); 2013)
For a decade or so, David Gordon Green was heralded as an independent auteur worth paying attention to. His first film, the fascinating George Washington, immediately earned the kind of critical acclaim that leads to a Criterion Collection release and a bevy of year end Best of nods. Almost immediately, he was on top of the world. He would soon follow up with the equally impressive All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels. For about eight years, his every creative move was monitored by the arthouse crowd as some manner of motion picture second coming. Then he decided to get high with Seth Rogen and James Franco, turning their Pineapple Express into an unlikely hit and a concerning career talking point. Fans started to wonder if he had “sold out,” and with efforts like Your Highness and The Sitter, is seemed like the answer was a solid, herb-tinged “Yes.”
Then, out of the blue, Green dropped most of his Friends of Apatow “buds” and went off to make Prince Avalanche. A two person comedy cloaked in a character study, it reminded the skeptical and dismissive that, when he wanted to, this director could go back the source of his initial acclaim whenever he wanted to. Effortless and filled with gorgeous sights and sounds, the storyline may seem simple, but Green actually appears to be doing more here than just razzing a couple of highway workers stuck in the sad state of their own limited love lives. Alvin (a terrific Paul Rudd) is trying to escape the burdens of a girlfriend who wants him to be more serious and career minded. Bringing her brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) along for a three month job painting yellow lines down a stretch of wildfire scorched road, the duo offer up a battle of half-wits that’s not laugh out loud funny so much as humorous in its understanding of the human experience.
You see, Lance wants nothing more than to do his job, get his pay, and head into town for the weekend and get laid. He thinks Alvin is odd for wanting to camp out in the countryside and the two occasionally argue over the value of such alone time and natural silence. Of course, the job requires them to stay out among the elements, especially since they have an incredibly long stretch of Texas road to reclaim. But we also sense that Alvin is trying to avoid something - responsibility, the requests of Lance’s intolerant sister, the reason he takes so much medication on a daily basis. Eventually, we learn the truth about both men, about their obvious failings as same, and the pitfalls they face once the job is over. Along the way, a crusty old truck driver comes by, commenting on the work being done and delivering bottles of what appears to be homemade hooch.
Green treats the material with a standard three act arc. At first, we get to know Alvin and Lance a bit better, the former’s love of comics and his devotion to doing the right thing, the latter’s desire for physical affection and his longing for a seemingly unobtainable girl. During the second act, both discover that their plotted out path moving forward isn’t going to conform to said designs. For Alvin, it’s not really understanding what his girlfriend really wants. Lance’s news is a bit more shocking, but explicable considering what his main concerns are. After a moment of pretend violence, the duo settle into a third section celebration of their newfound conundrums. They get drunk, destroy some of the material they need to do their job, and in essence realize that they are not so different after all. For Rudd’s Alvin, it’s a revelation. For Hirsch’s Lance, it’s the first of many steps toward maturity.
There are also ethereal elements at play here, unexplained circumstances which may be nothing more than flights of fancy on Green’s part. During Lance’s first weekend away, Alvin comes across a collection of burned out houses, and while touring same, sees an elderly woman rummaging through her former belongings. It’s very touching and telling… until we learn that no one but he and Lance can see her. Unless the grizzled old (and often drunk) trucker is pulling their leg, he claims no knowledge of such a woman. Similarly, during said sequence, Alvin reenacts a happy home scenario where he walks through an invisible door, calls out to an equally unseen wife, and the settles into a fire damaged chair like he’s home for the evening. The look on his face suggests a happiness he will probably never have.
With a gorgeous landscape backing him and a solid musical score by ambient experts Explosions in the Sky as support, Green gets us to believe that there is more here than we initially perceive. We want to think that there is more to Alvin and Lance’s story than a basic case of two arrested adolescents unable to comprehend the mid ‘80s woman (the film is set in the middle of the Reagan era for unknown reasons). The former wants his space, the latter to party like its several years before it is 1999. For them, the demands of the female are like the various perils they face among the fire damaged forests they work in - manageable but never welcome. It’s also clear that both will have to change in order to get what they want. Like nature, reclaiming the charcoal stumps and twigs, these two are starting to reorder and reestablish their lives. Eventually, they’ll be fine. For now, they’re a work in progress.
In turn, it seems like Green is happy balancing the demands of a semi-commercial career with a desire to return to his aesthetic sources now and then. His next film is an adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel Joe starring Nicolas Cage, and he’s long been associated with a remake of Dario Argento’s Italian horror classic Suspiria. With something like Price Avalanche, he once again illustrates that, sometimes, the biggest revelations come from the smallest moments. It may not be the astonishing debut that George Washington was, but for those who’ve feared that Green had turned into a reluctant chronicler of stoner stupidity, this is a real welcome home.