Sunday 14 June 2020

From the archive: "Prince Avalanche"

A rift looks to have opened up between director David Gordon Green and the new comedy superstars whose bandwagon he jumped on with 2008’s Pineapple Express and 2011’s The Sitter and Your Highness. In June’s This Is The End, Seth Rogen could be heard pitching ideas for Pineapple Express 2, with Green nowhere to be seen; worse, the not entirely unfunny Your Highness was dismissed in one conversational aside as every bit as regrettable for these hip showbiz bucks’ CVs as Bill Murray claimed Garfield was for his in the similarly meta Zombieland.

Green, for his part, has maintained a dignified silence, and now ventures back out on the road with Prince Avalanche, a remake of the Icelandic film Either Way (itself opportunistically rushed into UK cinemas this weekend) that picks up the Malick-y/Thoreau-ish thread in a filmography that began in the American heartlands with the tremendous George Washington and All the Real Girls; now, however, Green possesses an even easier rapport with his performers, and a fresh perspective on the kind of bromance he’s spent these past few years peddling.

The new film unfolds in 1988, and in the wake of the (real-life) bushfires that swept through Texas. A two-man road crew are hard at work respraying markings and sticking down the cat’s eyes. Alvin (Paul Rudd), the older of the pair, is a frowning, moustachioed stickler keen to use his days and nights in the wilderness to commune with nature and learn German, that most Romantic of tongues. Lance (Emile Hirsch), who happens to be Alvin’s girlfriend’s brother, has tagged along for the money, but clearly misses the heady thrills of the city.

Green’s recent bromances depended on a more or less complete disavowal of the opposite sex, but in Prince Avalanche, women come to be defined by their absence: the one flesh-and-blood example we see of the fairer sex, an old dear pottering confusedly around her fire-gutted home, is a mystery, possibly even a ghost. These guys miss the girls; it’s all they can talk and think about, and their experiences bring them closer together.

Lance, nicely played by Hirsch as a model of reckless, restless youth, confesses “nature makes me horny”, and it’s hardly surprising, given how Green and cinematographer Tim Orr contrive to cram more animal imagery into each frame than one might find in the average Talk Talk video; every last woodlouse and pendulously endowed donkey makes an appearance, but there’s just no Eve for these lonely Adams in this parched Eden.

This will become tragically apparent in the case of Alvin, compelled to mime a domestic scene in the rain amid the remains of one bulldozered property – the ruins providing an analogue for what’s left of his own collapsing relationship. Rudd, one of modern comedy’s subtler performers, pulls us in by suggesting the wistfulness and suppressed heartbreak stored up behind his bristling, officious moustache: this is the portrait of resigned middle-age that didn’t quite come over amid the ingratiating jollification of February’s This is 40.

Rudd can be very funny, as when he flexes his biceps in a bid to convince as the outdoorsy type or in his clumsy attempts to impress the world with his new-found language skills, but crucially, when his pent-up Alvin is given cause to chase Lance through the woods with a hammer, Green allows the pursuit to peter out in a silence that lets us feel the character’s pain – where an 18-wheeler of a movie like Pineapple Express would have ploughed on regardless.

As Mother Nature works her best effects on these boys, so too Prince Avalanche’s calmness works on the viewer, allowing us to hear those soothing or poignant notes that were drowned out or simply weren’t present in this director’s recent films. The roads these guys roam back and forth along, pondering where to go with their lives, become eloquent metaphors for all those conflicting impulses that lie at the heart of a man. Venture out alone, put up a tent, and try to live the life self-sufficient? (In this regard, the casting of Hirsch, wandering hero of 2007’s Into the Wild, is particularly resonant.) Or seek out somebody new, no matter that letting down your guard may result in only more pain?

Lance and Alvin rebuild, repaint and tarmac over the cracks; sometimes they take a drink, smash shit up, and then get back to the task in hand. Had it arrived closer to the time – and had Paul Schneider not been transferred elsewhere in the Parks & Recreation department – Prince Avalanche might have come as a sequel to All the Real Girls, one of the all-time great break-up movies. I write this as someone who sniggered as much as anybody during Pineapple Express and Your Highness: Green is moving back in the right direction here.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Prince Avalanche is now streaming on MUBI UK.

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