The career trajectory of director David Gordon Green has been a singularly odd one. He first made a name for himself nearly 15 years ago, making indie dramas like "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls," ruminative coming-of-age tales set in small Southern towns. But he went on to achieve more mainstream success in recent years for his raunchy stoner comedies, frequently starring James Franco, like "Pineapple Express" and "Your Highness." It appears that we're seeing a synthesis of the director's seemingly disparate styles with "Prince Avalanche" -- screening this weekend at the Dryden Theatre -- which focuses on an occasionally profane bromance that would be right at home in his later work, examined through the sensitive lyricism of his earlier films.
Set in the late 1980's, the film stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as Alvin and Lance, two mismatched road-crew workers making repairs on a winding stretch of forest road in Central Texas. The job will last for several months, and between the hours spent painting in the yellow lines and hammering in reflector poles, the two men are left to mostly fend for themselves, sharing a tent and hunting for their food.
We learn that 30something Alvin has been working this particular job for some time. The significantly younger Lance is the brother of Alvin's girlfriend, and he's been hired only as a favor to her. The film functions as a dual character study, showing the different ways each man has for dealing with the isolation. Already a bit of an oddball, Alvin savors it, while the perpetually horny Lance goes a little stir crazy. With only each other for company (aside from a crazy old truck driver, played by the late Lance LeGault, who makes several stops to chat with the men as he passes by), the two men are forced to get along despite their differences, alternately supporting and infuriating one another.
Green is a fantastic director of actors, and he gets wonderful performances out of his two leads. Frequently the only actors on screen for lengthy stretches of time, Rudd and Hirsch are forced to carry the film. The uptight Alvin is a slightly more serious role than we're used to from Rudd, but he brings his usual charisma to the part, making him naturally sympathetic. Hirsch is able to make Lance's naiveté and loutish ways amusing rather than obnoxious, and while his character isn't far from the typical manchild we've seen so often in the Apatow school of comedy, Hirsch finds the hidden layers. Together, the actors have a remarkably convincing chemistry.
"Prince Avalanche" was shot on location at Bastrop State Park in Texas following the 2011 Bastrop County Complex fire, the most destructive wildfire in the state's history. The naturalism of the film is aided in no small part by the use of those real locations. The stark backdrop of scorched earth and damaged trees are beautifully photographed by Green's usual director of photography, Tim Orr, and it lends even the film's more comedic moments a hint of melancholy. The musical score, by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, perfectly captures the mood.
The setting leads to one of the more emotional moments in the film, a heartbreaking scene where Paul Rudd stumbles across an elderly woman digging through the rubble of her burned home. As he helps the woman search for a lost pilot's license, she describes the experience as feeling as though she's sifting through her own ashes. Supposedly, this scene was unplanned, added after the film's crew came across the woman, Joyce Payne, at the remains of what was her actual home. I wouldn't doubt this explanation for a second; her sadness is palpable, and the scene is one of the most powerful and moving depictions of grief I've seen in a film. Despite this focus on loss and loneliness, the film is frequently quite funny. But it's that combination of sadness with humor that ultimately makes "Prince Avalanche" an unexpectedly sweet and affecting buddy comedy.