At this point, pretty much anything anyone writes about director David Gordon Green sets out to divide his early “promising” work—impressionistic, Malick-beholden films like All the Real Girls and George Washington—from more recent stoner comedies like Pineapple Express, the much-vilified-now-but-future-cult-classic Your Highness, and Green’s work on Eastbound & Down.
The critical line on Green’s latest film, Prince Avalanche, is that it synthesizes the poetic and artistic impulses of the earlier films with the commercial comedy of what came after—that, in short, Green has found his way again. I don’t think that this is especially true.
Based on the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way, Prince Avalanche floats around the barest wisp of a plot. It’s the end of the 1980s, and in the middle of wildfire-ravaged Texas, uptight Alvin (Paul Rudd) and slacker Lance (Emile Hirsch, channeling a sensitive Jack Black) paint yellow lines on the old rural roads and hammer in new signposts. They squabble, share vodka with an alcoholic truck driver, and encounter a woman whose house has burned down. We learn that Lance has scored the job because his sister is Alvin’s girlfriend—but that romantic relationship looks pretty rocky from the get-go.
Prince Avalanche is never better than its opening scenes, where Alvin and Lance wordlessly perform their duties, hammering stakes into the ground and measuring out yellow dashes. Green is confident enough to let the camera linger on his actors, and most of the memorable scenes are simple—Paul Rudd’s motions as he sets up a folding table, or Hirsch tying down equipment to the work jeep. The blasted Texas forest is beautiful, as new growth mixes with charred tree trunks in frames by turns surreal and painterly.
The story line of Prince Avalanche isn’t especially bad; it’s just not especially good, or even interesting. There’s simply too much indie dramedy quirkiness going on here, and when Green’s plotting hits familiar arc-driven beats—a climactic fight, a scene of drunken abandon—the story feels false against the pure, beautiful cinematography. The original score by postrockers Explosions in the Sky is maddeningly intrusive, buzzing with overly-detailed blips and rhythm huffs that sound at times like Tangerine Dream’s work on Risky Business. Calm down!
This is all perhaps a way of saying that the “synthesis” many critics have detected in Prince Avalanche is not particularly satisfying. It’s true that the film is smaller and more intimate than Green’s last effort, the execrable and indefensible into-the-night film The Sitter, but Prince Avalanche is just as much a product of formula as that film.
In most of his films, Green retells the same core story about a lonely young man with communication troubles who really just wants a friend (this is Paul Schneider in All the Real Girls or James Franco in Pineapple Express or Danny McBride in Your Highness). Prince Avalanche is no different, but it seems unsure of pulling off its emotional impact without all the indie-quirk baggage. It feels bloated at a scant 96 minutes and would be a far better film if, like the burned and beautiful world it depicts, it was willing to strip away more of its protective layers. (It doesn’t help that Kelly Reichardt told a similar story far better in 2006 with her film Old Joy).
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on the film—I’ll confess I wanted it to be great, something that could transcend the self-seriousness of All the Real Girls and surpass the final, perfect diner scene of Pineapple Express (the single moment where Green best combines his Malick-tinged naturalism with his sense of bromance-up-too-late humor).
Of course I could be dead wrong—I might catch the film on cable in a year and see something there that I missed the first time. Like most viewers, I had no love for Your Highness on first viewing but have since sat through it at least four times—it’s a failure, to be sure, but a compelling, bizarre failure, one that I find funnier and more self-aware each time. And the same promise that Green has always shown in all his work (okay, not The Sitter) shines brightly throughout Prince Avalanche. The final shot of the film shows us children joyfully chasing a chicken. It’s one of the finest moments in the film, and I wish Green’s lens lingered there longer—I’d like to see what happens next.