It’s the final night of Film4’s Summer Screen. A few hundred people sit amid blankets and picnic baskets in the courtyard of the beautiful Somerset House, sipping wine and waiting for the sun to go down and the UK Premiere of Prince Avalanche to begin.
Director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) speaks briefly before the screening about courage and creative risks. Then the opening credits roll.
Set in deep rural Texas in the late eighties, Prince Avalanche tells the story of two road workers, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), who spend their days painting yellow lines on the roads and bickering with each other. Alvin enjoys the solitude of the wilderness and is saving money for a trip to Germany with his girlfriend. Lance meanwhile finds the lifestyle and Alvin increasingly boring and lives for weekends when he can drink, party and try to ‘get the little man squeezed’. The film concentrates on the relationship between these two men and how this relationship affects the way they manage the problems in their lives away from the job.
Prince Avalanche is actually a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Icelandic feature ‘Either Way’, with some scenes recreated almost identically and may leave you wondering why Green bothered to remake it at all. The answer to this is found largely in the lead performances. Hirsch and Rudd are both superb in their roles and carry the entire piece on their shoulders, with only two other characters making brief appearances. Surprisingly it is Hirsch who produces the majority of the laughs throughout, flawlessly playing a character who could easily be detestable but instead comes across as innocently endearing. While Rudd takes on the role of the up-tight boss and yet still manages to draw laughs and empathy out of pathos.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Green wasn’t exaggerating about creative risks. He is unafraid to let a scene run and run, or allow several minutes to pass dialog free, trusting that the audience will not become bored. And with the richness of the cinematography and stirring soundtrack (created by Explosins in the Sky), boredom is never an option, even when the plot disappears amidst shots of weathered tree-trunks and gushing rivers.
The location gives a fairytale-like ambience to the film, and Green wisely does not at any point follow his characters out of their setting as this would surely break the spell. The plot progresses slowly and it gradually becomes clear that this is an epic story about heroes and their quest. Both characters searching simply for happiness. Alvin and Lance hint at an awareness of this during seemingly banal late night conversations in which they compare themselves to comic book superhero’s and exiled Princes. At other moments supernatural forces appear to be at work, though it is not overstated but instead left open to audience interpretation. In the end though these moments of heightened reality only seem to highlight the futility of their mission. At times it even seems as if their journey mirrors our own lives as we watch them struggle on along an endless road with nothing but wilderness on either side, through loneliness, frustration and heartbreak.
The film’s success is due largely to its subtlety. It doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t play purposely for laughs. Occasionally the characters offer profound insights, for example lance asks ‘don’t you get lonely,’ and Alvin replies ‘being alone isn’t the same as being lonely.’ Though more often the pair fall short of understanding their own emotions or grasping any real truth. The result of this is a piece that is both intensely moving and funny.