David Gordon Green started his career making beautifully photographed, moody, laconic dramas set in the Southern U.S., which earned him acclaim and the unofficial title of Baby Terrence Malick. Then he started directing stoner comedies and episodes of Eastbound and Down, and film snobs everywhere rent their clothes and declared a once-bright light in the cinema firmament had been snuffed out for the sake of bigger budgets and Natalie Portman butt shots.
The new dramedy Prince Avalanche proves that, while Green might like to take crass career detours, he never "lost" his talent. Inspired by the simultaneously lush and desiccated Bastrop State Park in Texas, which was almost entirely burned in an enormous fire in 2011, Green decided to remake an Icelandic film called Either Way, about two men painting new yellow lines on an isolated road.
Alvin (Paul Rudd) is a self-conscious romantic. He decides to take on this line-painting job because he assumes that life in the (semi-)wild will be beneficial for him as a capital-M Man. He hires his girlfriend's brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch), to be his work partner. They get along fairly well, but Lance is bored by the seclusion. The film is set in 1988, but if this were the present day, no doubt Lance would be constantly looking at his phone.
The film is almost entirely a two-hander, with Alvin constantly trying to impress his worldliness on Lance, who is too wrapped up in thinking about how he's going to get laid on the weekends to pay Alvin much mind. With a Selleck 'stache and Roger Ebert glasses, Alvin could never be mistaken for an alpha male. In one memorable scene, a truck driver who is also working in the burnt-out park (Lance LeGault, a familiar face from '80s TV) stops to chat and gives Alvin a cigar. As Alvin clumsily lights it, the truck driver says, "Actually, you shouldn't smoke." Alvin replies, "I know, it's bad for you." "No. You shouldn't smoke. You look stupid."
Emile Hirsch put on a few pounds to give Lance an overall slacker pudge. With his shaggy hair, collection of Hawaiian shirts, and affinity for generic hard rock music, watching Hirsch's performance feels like watching a young, unambitious Jack Black.
While the characters could be comedic fish-in-a-barrel, both actors are talented enough to expose the vulnerability that makes these men behave the way they do. The story also provides them with some nice moments to shine singularly. While Lance goes to town for the weekend, Alvin spends his time fishing and exploring. He comes upon a woman sifting through the ashes of her burned-down house, looking for the evidence of the life she lived. The woman is Joyce Payne, a non-actor actually sifting through the remains of her actual burned-down home. As she tells her heartbreaking story, Rudd's reaction as Alvin is some of the nicest, subtlest character work in the film.
When Lance comes back, he has some hilarious monologues about the (often self-made) dramas he faces back home, trying to steal his best friend's girl and getting confused when his best friend becomes upset with him. Hirsch stays to true to his character and never leans into the humor of these speeches, just letting Lance's point-of-view in recounting these misadventures be the source of the comedy.
The film features no elaborate plotting. It just allows the characters to bond, to fight, and to become true friends, against the backdrop of a demolished world on the verge of rebuilding. It's an arty conceit, but it's kind of an arty movie, you know?
Tim Orr is one of the most talented cinematographers working today, and his work capturing the outdoors for this film is stunning as usual. The AVC-encoded transfer here captures his 2.40:1 anamorphic images in all their subtlety, with great color reproduction and tight digital grain, even in the many scenes shot in low light.
The score by instrumental band Explosions In The Sky, in collaboration with David Wingo, is the true star of the English 5.1 track, guiding us through many of the dreamy interludes and otherwise quiet moments. The dialogue is clear and the sound effects perfectly compliment the mood. It's exactly what you would want for a low-key, pretty movie like this. There are English SDH and French subtitles.
The main goodie is an audio commentary with writer/director David Gordon Green, intern / talent driver Paul Logan, and production assistant Hugo Garza. As if to illustrate the team effort of the small crew, director Green has asked 2 below-the-line crew members to chat about their experiences making the movie. Green has a lot to say himself, but he instinctively knows when to stop babbling and pick his co-commentators' brains for weird gossip and minutiae (for example, driver Paul Logan talks about how Paul Rudd was always trying to show him Youtube videos in the car but would never pause them to let them buffer). Even with these odd points-of-view on the production, the track gets a little bogged down about an hour in, for a stretch of 10 minutes or so. The energy level does rebound eventually and overall the chat is entertaining and revealing, so I recommend giving the commentary a listen if you enjoyed the movie.
There is one deleted scene, although calling it a scene is stretching it. It consists of Emile Hirsch dancing around for 30 seconds, while the boombox plays a Dazz Band-ish funk song.
Then, there are a smattering of EPK / Interview pieces. "From The Ashes" (9:30, HD) is the most substantial and satisfying featurette, where David Gordon Green discusses getting the inspiration to do a project in the burned out Bastrop State Park and then finding the material to film there. The actors and producers also chime in with anecdotes about the production process. "Paul and Emile" (6:55, HD) is a similar piece, culled from the same interviews and on-set footage, focused on the lead actors and their conceptions of their characters. "Lance LeGault" (4:41, HD) highlights the legendary character actor / musician who played the truck driver. Green met him on a TV commercial shoot he was directing and decided he would be a good fit for this film. LeGault died in the fall of 2012, and Prince Avalanche turned out to be his swan song.
Interview with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch (6:47, HD) is just raw clips taken from an interview with the stars shot for an AXS TV interstitial (included on the disc as well). Rudd is in a goofy mood, largely because the actors appear to be stuck in the corner of a hotel hallway to shoot the footage, and people keep using the nearby elevator. While a lot of the topics they cover are already well-covered in the other interviews and the commentary, this is the loosest and most off-the-cuff we get to see our stars. Interview with director David Gordon Green (5:02, HD) is from the same hotel hallway shoot and is pretty redundant if you listen to the commentary or watch the other EPK pieces. AXS TV: A Look at... (3:32, HD): This is the interstitial commercial based on excerpts from the previous two interviews. Those interested in the process of EPK editing might find the soundbite selections interesting, but most folks can just skip this clip.
Also included are trailers for this film, Drinking Buddies, I Give It A Year, Syrup, and Touchy Feely. All of them are presented with 5.1 sound and are quite well-made. I now want to watch all of these movies.
While it would be tempting to call Prince Avalanche a "return to form" for David Gordon Green, or a marriage of his previously demonstrated serious-art and silly-comedy tendencies, it feels instead like its own unique entity. While "serious" comedy fans are more likely to get a kick out of this film than people who like to re-watch Your Highness, Prince Avalanche hopefully signals a new trend toward humanist humor in the director's work. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his random movie thoughts on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bottomofqueue