“Prince Avalanche” screens for free at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30 only at the UW-Cinematheque screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. R, 1:33, three stars out of four.
After “Your Highness,” any movie director David Gordon Green made that didn’t feature Danny McBride with a minotaur’s penis around his neck would have been considered a step up. After a trio of bracing indie films (including his debut, “George Washington,” which Green brought to the 2001 Wisconsin Film Festival), Green fell in with the Rogenverse and made stoner comedies like “Pineapple Express” and the huge misfires “Your Highness” and “The Sitter.”
“Prince Avalanche” is unquestionably a return to form for Green, fusing the contemplative beauty of his earlier features with the character-driven comedy of his commercial films. Adapted from the Icelandic comedy “Either Way” (which screened at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival), “Avalanche” will have Green’s earlier fans heaving a sigh of relief.
Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are two men given the Sisyphean task of painting the yellow lines on a winding road through a forest devastated by fires. (The film is set after a real blaze in 1988, but was filmed in central Texas after another wildfire.)
The beautiful but desolate landscape, new life pushing its way past the scarred dead trees, illustrates the tenuous psychological balance of Alvin. He fancies himself a sort of Thoreau-ian frontier philosopher, able to write eloquent letters to his girlfriend Madison while cooking a squirrel on his Coleman stove. In reality, though, Alvin likely craves the solitude of nature because he’s just not that good at people; he’s like the one Boy Scout who has a sash full of badges, but nobody in the troop to call a friend. Rudd’s natural charms help us root for this strange, sometimes prickly man.
Lance is the younger brother of Madison, a mulleted goofball who can’t wait for the workday to be over so he can head back into town and “get the little man squeezed,” as he says. Alvin treats Lance as if he were some sort of project, a delinquent he needs to save through the healing powers of hard work and nature, but of course Lance knows himself a lot better than Alvin does.
As they trudge down the road, painting line after line after line, the tensions between the two men start to grow (there’s a hilarious spat over their “equal time boombox agreement”). When Alvin gets bad news from home, he snaps, his shaky man’s man facade in tatters. The two men bicker, have a little slap-fight, and then start finally bonding on an honest level.
Rudd and Hirsch are often very funny, with Alvin’s righteousness scraping enjoyably against Lance’s sullen party-hearty rebellion. Green plays their struggle out against striking exteriors, shot by Tim Orr and scored by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo. The result is a strange and satisfying contradiction, an intimate two-man play with acres and acres of stark natural beauty as its stage.
There’s definitely a “Waiting For Godot”-like vibe to “Prince Avalanche,” including a mysterious traveler (the late Lance Le Gault) who shows up from time to time. But if “Godot” was about the eternal, existential paralysis of life, “Avalanche” is more hopeful, suggesting that we can move forward — one tiny yellow line at a time.