For those afraid that David Gordon Green had completely abandoned the lyrical style that marked such early films as George Washington and All the Real Girls for the crude stoner-comedy mode of Pineapple Express and Your Highness, well, it’s back in his latest film, Prince Avalanche, though perhaps not in the way one might have expected.
Simply on the level of tone, the film, a Judd Apatow-like bromance elevated to the realm of near-myth, is an extremely odd, deliberately jarring work—the kind of film where a tossed-off fart joke coexists with a mournful montage of a man, Alvin (Paul Rudd), contemplating the burned-out ruins of an old woman’s house. But the film has even weirder angles to it than that: how the old woman eventually turns out to be a ghost of some sort, and the how the leavening mysterious female presence offers a counterpoint to the broadly macho old-man ghost that offers Alvin and his fellow road worker, Lance (Emile Hirsch), drinks and, by extension, tempting them to indulge in their inner macho selves.
Make no mistake though: It’s a man world in Prince Avalanche in much the same way it often is in Apatow films, with women treated basically as either emotional enigmas or objects to satisfy a man’s sexual urges. Green, however, conflates the personal drama with the aftermath of a massive wildfire that rocked the rural Texas landscape in 1988 (Alvin and Lance are road workers helping to rebuild the area)—a context that lends the film a grand metaphorical aura strengthened not only by Green’s poetic sensibility, but also by the splendors of usual Green collaborator Tim Orr’s widescreen cinematography, finding emotionally resonant bits of visual beauty in even the most charred and barren of settings. For those who were somehow waiting for the artistic apotheosis of the bromance, Prince Avalanche is it, for better and for worse.
Kate (Olivia Wilde), one of the central characters of Drinking Buddies, works in what one might consider a man’s world, as a marketing manager for a Chicago craft brewery. But this classic tomboy type has an easy affinity with the guys, often going out drinking with them after a hard day at work. She especially seems to get along with Luke (Jake Johnson) in ways that suggest a possible unspoken romantic affection, but Luke is in a serious relationship with a special-ed teacher, Jill (Anna Kendrick), and Kate is going out with a more sober-suited writer, Chris (Ron Livingston). When they all decide to go on a weekend camping trip, naturally, complications ensue.
That’s the setup of this latest film from polarizing mumblecore indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg, here working with his highest-profile cast yet. So far, so conventional. But if you have even the slightest knowledge of Swanberg’s heavily improvisational methods, you’ll recognize the unconventional ways he goes about exploring the changing emotional temperatures of these characters. And even though there are the usual spontaneous physical acts and ensuing regretful feelings, the Kate/Luke thread eventually goes into richer, more unexpected directions.
Drinking Buddies plays as a kind of comic tap dance at the edge of an adulterous abyss, with human feeling hitting the wall of cultural expectations, most fascinatingly in the Kate/Luke relationship. Whereas Chris and Jill are more open with their feelings in the heat of the moment, Kate and Luke sublimate their romantic urges through alcoholic beverages and flirty banter without ever actually coming right out and expressing the feelings bubbling just under the surface—though a scene in which Kate implores Luke to go skinny-dipping with her comes perilously close. In short, the drama between them lies almost exclusively between the lines. Richard Linklater captured something like this dynamic in Before Sunset, though Celine and Jesse were, of course, far more articulate about their conflicted emotions. The real master of this kind of low-key drama, however, was French New Wave master Eric Rohmer, who acutely understood of the way dialogue can conceal as much as reveal a character’s motives. Swanberg may not aim as high as Rohmer often did in his beautifully talky dramas (this is more an intimate comedy of manners than, say, a philosophical drama), but in its close observation of characters torn between their heads and their hearts, his new film is as penetrating and wise as Rohmer often was.
The film portion of South by Southwest runs from March 8—March 16.