With Prince Avalanche, director David Gordon Green emerges from the billowy cloud of ganja smoke that’s swallowed his career, breathing in the refreshing air of the Texas wilderness. The one-time wunderkind has been slumming it in Hollywood for the better part of a decade, his talents largely squandered on stoner-friendly studio fare like The Sitter and Your Highness. His newest effort makes with the funny, too—it’s a shaggy buddy comedy about a pair of bickering road workers whose rivalry gradually shades into friendship. Yet for the first time in years, Green’s personality pokes through the pratfalls. His touch is detectable from the opening scene, in which real footage of a raging inferno fades into early-morning images of the aftermath. Two weary laborers wander a highway, hammering posts into its damaged concrete. Mighty oaks stretch skyward. Birds and insects greet the day. And the triumphant post-rock of Explosions In The Sky swells on the soundtrack. By going back to nature—and to his indie roots—the director of George Washington has reconnected with his poetic side. The Malick comparisons seem appropriate again.
Though he shot in areas recently ravaged by flames, Green sets Prince Avalanche in the late ’80s, during the protracted cleanup of a different Texas wildfire. Without cell phones and wi-fi, the film’s mismatched protagonists only have each other for company—and they have little in common, near as they can tell. Rocking a bushy mustache that makes him look like a doughier Clive Owen, Paul Rudd plays the leader of the operation, an outdoorsy windbag who took the gig as an opportunity to “rough it” for a few weeks. As a favor to his girlfriend, to whom he writes rhapsodic letters, Rudd has hired the woman’s younger brother, slack-jawed slacker Emile Hirsch. The two don’t much care for each other, and Prince Avalanche, which borrows its wisp of a plot from a little-seen Icelandic film called Either Way, gets a lot of comedic mileage out of their passive-aggressive rapport. Rudd has played painfully uncool characters before, but never one this amusingly condescending. Hirsch, meanwhile, inverts his Into The Wild hero, sinking comfortably into the role of a clueless city-mouse with a soft heart. (A tearful monologue detailing a failed hookup may constitute the best acting of his career.) Blessed with these game performers, Green invests the sometimes-broad humor with unlikely pathos; an early masturbation gag inspires sympathy as well as laughter.
At times, Prince Avalanche plays like an offbeat spiritual cousin to Pineapple Express, especially once Rudd and Hirsch’s uneasy relationship blossoms into a full-blown bromance: United in heartache, the two get sauced on cheap hooch and rap about their lady problems. (Like too many cinematic male-bonding sessions, this one hinges on an unfaithful woman.) Yet Green’s interests run deeper, past the fart jokes and every-dude insecurity; he keeps getting lost in the majestic scenery, taking lyrical detours into the gradually re-growing foliage. (In the film’s most haunting episode, Rudd has an unscripted encounter with a local woman he finds sifting through the wreckage of her home.) By film’s end, picnickers have begun to appear alongside the highway; the forest is coming alive again, its rejuvenation symbolically linked to the characters’ emotional growth. Ripe with feeling, Prince Avalanche is all about rebirth—not just of the green in front of the camera, but of the Green behind it, too.