David Gordon Green made his name as a director with small, lyrical movies like George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003). Since then, he’s moved on to bigger-budget, incident-filled fare like The Sitter and Pineapple Express. During this transition, Green maintained the trademarks of his indie movies — for example, beautiful visual compositions, with the help of longtime cinematographer Tim Orr — but Prince Avalanche still feels like a return to an earlier version of Green, when his movies were much quieter.
Based loosely on Icelandic film Either Way (Á annan veg), Prince Avalanche focuses on just two characters: Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are a mismatched pair doing roadwork in a woodsy, fire-damaged area of Texas in 1988. Alvin hires Lance out of loyalty to his unseen girlfriend — Lance’s sister — but apart from the one familial connection, the two share no common ground.
Lance bristles at the loneliness of their surroundings and looks forward to the weekend when he can head to town for parties and women; Alvin, who considers himself an intellectual, appreciates the solitude of the forest and enjoys writing letters and living off the land. Together, they paint yellow lines in the street, hammer posts into the side of the road, share nights in the same tent, and, occasionally, talk about what’s been bothering them in their lives.
Their testy conversation forms the film’s action, such as it is, and on occasion, when even this fades into silence, Prince Avalanche offers its most compelling moments. A pre-titles montage shows Alvin and Lance getting ready for their workday, a weekend Alvin spends alone fishing, camping, and then again, digging through rubble while Lance is in town. The images remind us of Green’s earlier work, as wide shots of Texas landscapes are simultaneously beautiful and burned out, while feeling almost dreamlike. This feeling is recalled throughout the film by music from Texas band Explosion in the Sky and composer David Wingo that almost sounds like a contemporary Tangerine Dream.
The feeling also informs the plot, which is less eventful than capricious. Alvin and Lance’s limited contact with other people suggests a dream’s illogic: an odd, unnamed truck driver, played by Lance LeGault, shows up at random to give the boys moonshine, and a sad woman (Joyce Payne) appears briefly rifling through the remains of her old house. Each encounter is so offbeat and isolated that afterward it’s possible to question the reality of the interactions. “Sometimes I feel like I’m digging in my own ashes,” the woman says, as if searching for proof of her own existence.
But even as such episodes might seem bleak, Prince Avalanche remains resiliently funny. If there’s one thing Green has carried over from Pineapple Express and Your Highness, it’s silliness. This even as the new movie also resists the conventional aspects of that lesson: it may be painted with the same buddy-comedy brush as those films, but the description would be inaccurate here, since Alvin and Lance never develop a friendship. Instead of a movie where two people learn to accept the flaws in each other, Prince Avalanche is a movie about two people inhabiting the same space who learn to accept the flaws in themselves, even if these flaws are made up. Lance observes that they’re both “old fatties” (not true), Alvin minces his way through what an intellectual’s vision of an outdoorsman would be, and both argue about the “equal time agreement” on their shared boombox and chase each other around the woods. It’s some of the most enjoyable bickering ever put to screen.
The arguments help to build a rhythm in Prince Avalanche, punctuating the quieter moments and shaping the relationship. Both Lance and Alvin repeat the phrase, “Can’t we just enjoy the silence?”, usually when they don’t want to answer a question. But sometimes, questions are best left unanswered. And with Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green shows us that yes, we definitely can just enjoy the silence.