With the wry Prince Avalanche, writer-director David Gordon Green consolidates the bromantic interplay of Pineapple Express and Your Highness and the erstwhile elliptical lyricism of George Washington and All the Real Girls. It may have taken adapting deadpan Icelandic source material for this to occur, but Green channels a most comfortably middle-ground indie sensibility, evoking both palpable milieu and character interiors, to tell the story of two rudderless road workers with opposing personalities. Overt characterization, however, remains. Set in a wooded region of Texas following a devastating fictional forest wildfire in 1987, and wearing its time period on its affected sleeve, Prince Avalanche affords Green the opportunity to toy with themes of masculine responsibility while taking moments to indulge in delicately captured and ambient-scored montages of charred wilderness. The backdrop of ravaged nature provides a perfect—almost too-perfect—tableaux of shared solitude for the existential and workmanlike travails of the disillusioned duo: Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch).
Decked in Super Mario Bros.-esque overalls, Alvin and Lance are both a little burnt by life, yet too stubborn to acknowledge their failures or anticipate the disappointments to come. The concept of reflective isolation is wasted on them. Hired to tidy up the roads left in disarray by the destructive flames of the previous year, they settle into a quotidian routine of rolling a wheelbarrow for multiple miles, painting hundreds of yellow traffic lines, caulking reflectors, and concluding each workday by setting up a twee campsite. Despite a fairly dialogue-less opening, the first catalyst that forces them to speak to each other is a significantly synecdotal occurrence, with Alvin and Lance bickering over their shared cassette player: Alvin wants to listen to a German-for-beginners instructional tape, while Lance wants to jam out to rock n' roll. During their downtime, Alvin, who constantly exudes an air of superiority, writes earnest letters to his beloved girlfriend, Madison, Lance's older sister, while the deadbeat Lance absorbs comic books and drops uninhibited contemplative lines such as "I get so horny in nature." Alvin judges Lance's typical immaturity, yet follows his own pontificating acceptance of isolation ("I make the most of my solitude") with passive admissions of a history of anxiety ("I have prescription medicine, but I try not to take it").
Primarily a two-man act showcasing Alvin and Lance's battling, bruised egos, Prince Avalanche confronts the nature of shifting dynamics and the emotional connections the anxious twosome refuse to acknowledge. It's Waiting for Godot, if Godot was projected to be a voluptuous lady with a German accent and a willingness to satisfy the social and sexual needs of a man-boy. In general, there's "not much there," which is consequently a strength, as the pared down landscape enables Green to exhibit his talent in allocating equal time between character and mood. When Lance heads into the city for the weekend, claiming he needs civilization and loose women to placate his boredom during the week in the woods, Alvin wanders the area; at one point, Alvins playacts toward his absent girlfriend in a hollowed-out house and, later, encounters a melancholic, ghostly old woman who collects debris left in the ashen remains of her singed house and drops elegiac word bombs ("Everything is past tense now"). When Lance returns after attempting to woo a friend's former girlfriend, his demeanor is changed (reminiscent of Zooey Deschanel's symbolic haircut in All the Real Girls), and the concept of compassionate camaraderie despite personal differences, which is conveniently aided by the hooch an eccentric Fairy Boozefather forestman gifts to the boys whenever they cross paths, becomes the main motif.
Although Alvin and Lance's emotional journeys feel intensely outlined (with a winking, fill-in-the-blank improv suggestion to which Rudd and Hirsch are very game), the airy, mystical qualities alleviate much of the transparency in the tightly defined characterizations, striking an affable rhythm. The actors understand their characters well, perhaps even identify with them, even if they're occasionally upstaged by a stirring score by Explosions in the Sky and the gorgeously saturated cinematography by Green's über-reliable go-to DP, Tim Orr. Rudd does his Rudd-iest, and relishes the opportunity to create a complete character; he's complex in the expected ways, riffing on his trademark semi-smug wit and imbuing Alvin with a vulnerable exhibition of confused immaturity. Hirsch can certainly play aimless well, and yet he makes a mockery of Lance's oft-stupidity, leading to an occasionally awkward interpretation of what Jack Black may have been like in high school.
The psychological path of these characters is finely marked with signposts, but as Prince Avalanche reaches its destination, you almost wish it would have gotten a little more lost in the woods. Green carefully uncovers the inevitable emotional mini-climaxes, but the film's callousness-shattering catharsis isn't as sneaky as it would lead you to believe, as its alarming call for the characters to grow up is heavily portended by earlier talks and aptly poor articulations of sexual frustration, romantic rejection, and identity crises. How can one be alone? How can one be with others? These are simple questions that Prince Avalanche has a ball confronting, and Green appears to be just as energized by the evocative setting as he is by the emotionally stunted characters he's working with. "Maybe they'll make a comic book of us," Lance utters to Alvin toward the film's solemn conclusion, adding a tinge of self-reflexivity to the proceedings. Although never addressed, is the "Avalanche" of the film's title a bizarre melding of the main characters names, as the film's tone balances the two diametric personalities well? Like the film itself in its finest and most peculiar moments, this is both a mysterious allusion and a curiosity that never quite becomes clear; consequently, Prince Avalanche is stronger when conveying what it can't exactly explain than what it's actually trying to say.