After he delivered two raunchy misfires in a row with Your Highness and The Sitter, it’s gratifying to see director David Gordon Green return to the same kind of quiet, low-key dramas that put him on the map. And with an extremely limited cast and one constant backdrop, Prince Avalanche is perhaps Green’s quietest, lowest-key film yet.
Its commitment to the abstract is sometimes maddening, and its glacially slow pace is likely frustrating enough to alienate some viewers. However, I found Prince Avalanche remarkable in its ability to transfix me with the simplest of resources: two soulful performers, nature as a nonintrusive setting, feather-light direction and a minimalistic script. As it wanders along, the film possesses a strange, poetic charm that defies explanation.
As the film opens, we learn about a forest fire in the late 1980s that tore through the Texas wilderness, reducing trees and homes to ashes. Prince Avalanche then jumps to a year after the fire, to the summer of 1988, when two men set out to paint a stretch of road within a charred forest. Alvin (Paul Rudd) is an austere outdoorsman who values the silence and isolation of nature above all. Lance (Emile Hirsch), Alvin’s girlfriend’s brother, is positioned as his polar opposite, an insecure goofball who despises the boredom and solitude of the woods. Despite their differences, Alvin and Lance eventually become unlikely friends.
Green’s greatest achievement with Prince Avalanche is getting two incredible performances out of his stars. Rudd, playing a dramatic role, has never been better. He brings Alvin to life as a self-confident man who thinks he knows a lot more about himself than he actually does, inflecting many of his lines in the first half of the movie with a spot-on, holier-than-thou arrogance. However, Rudd isn’t afraid to delve into the character’s darkness and explore what in Alvin’s life has driven him to take shelter in the wilderness. With Prince Avalanche, Rudd establishes himself as a potent dramatic actor.
Hirsch is also excellent, playing Lance as a restless city boy who consistently chafes under Alvin’s direction. Lance takes every opportunity to rebel against his boss, abusing the pages of Alvin’s comic book or blasting rock music from the boombox Alvin reserves for German language lessons. Alvin wants to get back to nature, but Lance just wants to get out and go back to the city, where he can get hammered and hook up with models (or so he tells us). Lance is a complicated character, and Hirsch works very hard to bring him out of his shell in an organic way.
The chemistry between Rudd and Hirsch is the only reason Prince Avalanche works. Watching the pair snipe insults and exchange jokes is consistently funny but also peculiarly compelling. Especially with the film’s natural backdrop, we get the sense that these characters are both being carefully disassembled and built back up throughout their journey.
The presence of only two supporting characters strengthens Prince Avalanche‘s sense of isolation. Lance LeGault, in his final film role, is grizzled masculinity personified as a boozy truck driver who befriends Alvin and Lance and offers sage wisdom during his trips up and down the road. Though less of a full-blooded character than a spiritual mentor for Lance, the truck driver provides some of the film’s most dourly comic lines.
While scouting for Prince Avalanche in Bastrop State Park, where a 2011 blaze caused incredible devastation, Green’s crew came across a woman, Joyce Payne, rummaging through the wreckage of her old home. Payne brings her tragic story of loss to life by co-starring as a nameless old woman who dejectedly shows Alvin around the wreckage of her former home. “Past tense, it’s all past tense now,” she murmurs in Prince Avalanche‘s best, most heartbreaking scene.
Green dwells on gorgeous, haunting shots of scorched landscape, infusing Prince Avalanche with an undercurrent of melancholy. Both the forest and the characters have been considerably damaged by recent events. Part of what makes Prince Avalanche so affecting is its theme of rebirth. Both Alvin and Lance are laid low around the half-way mark, and their gradual rise from the ashes constitutes the remainder of the film. Green subtly brings out the new life that has arrived in the forest, from saplings stretching skyward to children playing amidst the ruins of old houses.
Though its beauty is often moving, Prince Avalanche is ultimately an imperfect film. At 94 minutes, it feels unfinished and far too slight. Its final ten minutes are also overly abstract, calling into questions events from earlier in the film for no legitimate reason. Additionally, Green’s background in raunch sometimes renders Lance’s dialogue smuttier than need be. When he launches into tales of his sexual conquests, it distracts from the film’s focus on the natural world and its healing powers.
Looking at the specs, the Blu-Ray disc is presented in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that fully brings out Prince Avalanche‘s lush, natural setting. Green’s focus on the beauty of Bastrop State Park makes watching the film in Blu-Ray highly recommended.
The 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio Track is solid throughout, but playing it at a high volume is recommended so that, in addition to getting all of the murmured dialogue from Rudd and Hirsch, you’ll feel the full effect of the softly gorgeous soundtrack from Explosions in the Sky and composer David Wingo.
Prince Avalanche comes with an assortment of special features, including:
- Commentary with Director and Crew
- Deleted Scene: Do the Dance
- Paul and Emile
- From the Ashes
- Lance LeGault
- Interview with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
- Interview with Director David Gordon Green
- AXS TV: A Look at Prince Avalanche
- Theatrical Trailer
You’re not missing much if you skip the commentary, which features Green, Set Production Assistant Hugo Garza and Talent Driver Paul Logan. Very little information about the themes of Prince Avalanche is discussed, and the closest we get to an explanation of the title is Green noting that it came to him in a dream.
I’m not quite sure why “Do the Dance” was cut from the film, as it’s just a brief scene of Hirsch’s character dancing on the road. In fact, Rudd’s character references the dancing later in Prince Avalanche, so the fact that the small scene was cut is very strange.
Fans will want to check out both “Paul and Emile” and “From the Ashes,” which explore the making of Prince Avalanche. In the first segment, Rudd, Hirsch, Green and producers Craig Zobel and Lisa Muskat offer insight into the creation of the two main characters and explain how the film’s cast and crew worked to deepen both of their personalities. “From the Ashes” reflects on the 2011 Bastrop fire that gave the film its setting while offering further information about the inclusion of Texas resident Joyce Payne.
The best bonus feature of the bunch is “Lance LeGault,” which examines the late actor’s lively presence on set and indefatigable spirit throughout his career. Rudd, Hirsch and Green all share their memories of LeGault from the filming of Prince Avalanche. The veteran actor’s death in 2011 was a tragedy, but the cast’s respectful salute to him is deeply moving.
All of the information from the interviews is dispersed throughout other special features, so if the last features you watch on the disc are the interviews, prepare for some major déjà vu. Conversely, if you watch both of the interviews through first, there’s little reason to go through the rest of the extras offered by the disc.
“AXS TV: A Look at Prince Avalanche” is typical promo stuff that includes a few scenes from the film and excerpts from interviews included elsewhere on the disc. It’s not worth your time. The theatrical trailer highlights Prince Avalanche‘s moments of comedy but steers away from any of the philosophical subtext present in the actual film.
Though David Gordon Green’s film features a spare, romantic eloquence and powerhouse performances from its two stars, Prince Avalanche‘s true strength is its oddly endearing aimlessness. The extras offered on the disc are a little disappointing, but the high-quality transfer is enough to justify the purchase. The film is definitely not for everyone, so don’t pick it up at random, but those viewers searching for a subtle, earnest character study will find a lot to like in Prince Avalanche.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.
A flawed but winning buddy pic, Prince Avalanche delivers strong performances and an enjoyable blend of humor and warmth.