David Gordon Green, who abandoned his indie cachet to take on big Hollywood projects like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness,” returns to his roots with this strangely affecting comedy-drama, which he’s adapted from Hafstenn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s Icelandic film “Either Way.” It’s a tale of new beginnings, something reflected in the backdrop—a burned-out Texas forest that will have to regenerate over time. But it’s also a story reflecting past journeys that have led to frustrations that require personal readjustments as well.
“Prince Avalanche”—a title more notable for its haunting sound than any literal meaning—is essentially a two-man show. It’s 1988, and Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are a pair of road maintenance workers painting center stripes and installing reflective mileage markers along a stretch of remote asphalt in an area of central Texas devastated by a 1987 blaze. They’re very different people. Alvin’s an A-type personality, endlessly working to improve himself and meticulously planning out every detail of his present and future, including wedded bliss with Lance’s sister Madison. He looks upon the solitary hours he spends at the job as a chance to read and commune with the outdoors, and writes long letters to Madison. He got the summer job for Lance, a guy only interested in broads and booze who’s bored stiff on the road and looks forward only to the times he can get away from their makeshift campsites and head back to town for another round of partying. No wonder they bicker and complain about one another like an old married couple.
The duo have little company as they go about their tedious work. Their only visitor is a grizzled trucker (Lance LeGault), who stops by to commiserate with them—he’s a member of the road crew, too—and offers them advice about women along with some whiskey. When Lance departs on Friday for a return to civilization, Alvin encounters another person on one of his rambles through the brush, a morose woman (Joyce Paine) who’s picking through the burnt-out frame of what was once her house. Later she’ll reappear with the trucker, whose reaction suggests that she might not be real at all.
There is a turning point in what passes for a plot, however, when Lance returns from his weekend. He’s in a surly mood, the reason for it being revealed over time. And he brings Alvin a letter from Madison which shreds his hopes and turns all his plans to dust. Both men are distraught over how things have turned out for them, and a brawl breaks out. But it quickly turns into something more like a drunken bonding session as they sympathize with one another’s plight.
“Prince Avalanche” is in many respects a kind of “Odd Couple” set in the great outdoors, and Green’s script is rich in alternately amusing and revealing dialogue, made somewhat arch by snatches of deliberately unusual diction. The actors seize on it with glee, Rudd veering from Felix Unger fussbudget to a genuinely pained, angry man with a skill those who have only seen him in fluff will find surprising, while Hirsch does the sloppy Oscar Madison bit nicely, gravitating toward a more introspective attitude toward the close. The late LeGault, to whom the film is dedicated, is a hoot in scenes that play like wild cadenzas, and Payne cuts an appropriately ambiguous figure.
As important to the picture as the cast are the technical contributions. Cinematographer Tim Orr uses the location—an area of Bastrop State Park that was turned into a wasteland by fires in the fall of 2011—brilliantly, periodically dropping painterly shots into images that have a workaday look and going for hand-held frenzy when the action heats up, while the background score by David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky complements his work beautifully.
The result is a small-scaled film that offers an alternately funny and sad rumination on the fragility of human affairs. For though who feared that “Your Highness” was a catastrophe that Green might never overcome, it represents a modest but impressive reminder of what he’s capable of.