Among the first couple of images that open David Gordon Green’s beautiful, beguiling Prince Avalanche is one of a burning forest. It’s awe-inspiring and perfectly captured: The camera is just close enough to catch the deadly sensuousness of the flames, yet far enough that the image feels oddly contemplative. An onscreen text informs us that in 1987, wildfires in Texas ravaged 43,000 woodland acres, but we’re pretty sure we’re not about to get a history lesson.
Prince Avalanche focuses on the comically strained relationship between two men as they work to restore a road that runs through the forest, repainting divider lines and hammering in road markers. Alvin (Paul Rudd) has hired the younger Lance (Emile Hirsch) because he’s dating the kid’s older sister, Madison. They don’t get along: Eager to better himself, Alvin wants to listen to German language lessons on their shared cassette player, while Lance just wants to rock out; Alvin likes the silence in the forest and has taken to camping out there, writing and reading and dreaming about Madison, while Lance just seems like a horndog who looks forward to his next hookup in town every weekend. Their recurring interactions are often intercut with lush, mysterious shots of nature or documentary-style footage of people rummaging among the wreckage of their homes. The gentle comedy of the characters’ banter is undercut by the overarching melancholy of the film: We’re watching broken people in a broken forest.
You’d expect the film to develop outward from there, to follow these characters through larger, complex narrative incidents and observe their relationship maturing. But the more we watch, the less certain we become as to who they are. The movie barely seems to hold together. Could it even be called a movie? And yet, it’s captivating — a bit like Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, but not as conceptually hidebound. It transforms before our very eyes. The simple, non-sequitur-laden dialogue at first has a terse naturalism, but then begins to assume a more absurdist quality: (“You tried to kill yourself by jumping off a 12-foot cliff?” “Sometimes I can do things that can’t really happen.” “What does that mean?” “I’m impossible.”) As the movie goes from Hemingway to Beckett, Alvin and Lance go from feeling like two distinct, bickering characters to something more elemental, like two sides of the same self – an adult male meeting his younger self, perhaps.
That so much of Alvin and Lance’s lives revolve around women whom we never see feels strangely poignant and troubling. An older woman does show up at one point, rummaging sadly among the detritus of her home, but later, as the movie moves from the specific to the abstract, even her existence is called into question. The odd title suggests both embryonic masculinity and a compound of the characters’ two names, not to mention dominion over the meaningless. A stirring, slow-motion passage of mad, drunken revelry late in the film – set to the ethereal, galloping crescendos of a score by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo – feels like a psychic avalanche of its own, a willful, joyous regression and revolt. Like the rest of the movie, you don’t quite know what to make of it, but it’s glorious.