Strong performances by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are the driving force behind Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green’s loose adaption of Hafsteinn Gunnar’s Either Way. Both films are studies in character and friendship and were shot on a micro-budget, but instead of Gunnar’s volcanic Icelandic highlands, Rudd and Hirsch are placed on a stretch of rural highway ravaged by a wildfire. The scorched forests in which they work and camp as they repaint the center line markings provide an often surreal backdrop for their interactions—a new friendship budding in a ruin.
The audience sees a lot of the daily drudgery of the two men, Alvin (Rudd) and Lance (Hirsch), including placing posts and pylons and painting line after line after line down the middle of the road. Alvin has only agreed to bring Lance on the job for the summer because Alvin is dating Lance’s sister. It is interesting to note that, though the focus of the story is on two men in isolation, the women they left back in the city and the dynamics between them remain defining factors for themselves and the catalyst of their relationship.
The spaces between the dialogue are filled with quiet, beautiful meditations on the landscape and its creatures, fire and water. The harsh scars of the blaze mellow with the rain that weaves its way through the film, bringing forth new life, much as the early, guarded barbs that Alvin and Lance trade give way to sincerity and openness. Pairing this larger cosmic drama with the personal drama between the two men might seem grandiose, and some may find it gratuitous, but the filmmakers do it all deftly, thanks in part to a well chosen soundtrack. Strains of guitar and piano by Explosions in the Sky and Dave Wingo accompany these images flawlessly. The landscape does not merely reflect the burgeoning friendship. Like the connections they have to others, the regeneration of the land around them helps to tear away the barriers they have erected and their conceptions of what it means to be a man. These barriers are lost as they become part of the landscape—not vice versa.
The grander scenery sets the stage and the mood, but the action is still focused on small, simple things that become sources of joy. Repeated, subtle imagery is left open for interpretation. Is it just yellow paint to be laid in stripes on the road, or does it represent something more when Lance begins to paint it on his shoes or when Alvin, with the help of a generous trucker and his moonshine, rebelliously runs it about in extravagant squiggles? Who cares? Let’s just enjoy the visual of the paint filling the whole screen from left to right as it is sprayed on the pavement. Or watch it as it swirls downstream, turning a brooklet to liquid daffodil yellow.
A few scenes Avalanche verge on surrealistic, such as when a few doves are discovered in the cab of the truck and the men react without surprise. No explanation is offered, but one can take it as another sign of higher forces at work, bringing the Lance and Alvin together and helping them to survive (with) each other. (If you don’t buy that, it’s just harmlessly quirky.)
Prince Avalanche has a lot to say about vulnerability, the universality of wanting to reach out and the need for camaraderie and comfort. The sequencing and development of events and the central characters feel natural, though there isn’t much action to speak of. Most of what the audience sees is Alvin and Lance either working, about to work or resting—the daily drudge giving way to moments of sublimity that are better shared between friends. Especially when they have more moonshine delivered.
Prince Avalanche is playing at The Varsity Theatre.