David Gordon Green's career since his acclaimed 2000 debut "George Washington" has taken one of the more bizarre paths of contemporary American filmmakers. At first heralded as an emerging Malickian poet of southern life — a quality that continued with follow-ups "All the Real Girls," "Undertow" and the stirring "Snow Angels" — he then took a sharp turn into studio comedies. While Green's take on the vulgar man-child stories popularized by Judd Apatow were more naughtily unhinged than most, only "Pineapple Express" generated some appreciative fans. "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" left many wondering if the elegant craftsman behind Green's first four movies was gone for good.
With the low-budget, minimalist comedy "Prince Avalanche," he proves that's far from the case, although the new movie isn't exactly a return to form so much as a consolidation of the filmmaker's dual tendencies. Pairing a lyrical vision of hope and renewal with sophomoric comedy tropes, Green shows that the two periods of work that comprise his career certainly came from the same person.
A remake of the obscure Icelandic feature "Either Way," "Prince Avalanche" was shot quickly with a four-person cast in Texas, and it retains the smallness of a play. At the same time, this low-key character study benefits from the visual inspiration of its backdrop. Setting the plot in the aftermath of 1987 Texas wildfires that devastated miles of wilderness, Green has "Prince Avalanche" revolve around the isolated experiences of self-important Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend's party-loving brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) as they spend a remote summer together repainting traffic lines and camping out. Bickering about life decisions and career pressures, the men slip into the familiar chemistry of a buddy movie rendered strange by the isolation surrounding them.
A unique actor's showcase, "Prince Avalanche" benefits from a mustachioed Rudd in a more enjoyably offbeat turn than his usual blue-collar routine, while Hirsch matches his wacky delivery in last year's "Killer Joe" by playing another misguided naif, this time less demented than just plain goofy. Their commitment to these roles sustains "Prince Avalanche" through some of its more typical plot developments — the relationship that begins to fray around the midpoint and culminates in all their unspoken resentments coming out is nothing new, but Rudd and Hirsch render it in enjoyably slapstick terms.
Yet it's the elements that are familiar from Green's earlier movies that truly make "Prince Avalanche" come alive and stand apart from any familiar comedic mold. Beautifully shot by Green's cinematographer Tim Orr, the movie takes place against a highly expressionistic backdrop of nature in the process of rejuvenation: From the wordless opening, in which Lance and Alvin start their day against a glorious sunrise, "Prince Avalanche" uses the frayed wilderness setting to frame its characters' negligible personal dramas in the larger context of perseverance. Regular Green composer David Wingo's mournful score furthers the perception of profound forces surrounding Lance and Alvin's rampant squabbling.
But once they start talking, "Prince Avalanche" shows its seams, establishing an abrupt tonal shift that continues to plague the movie throughout: Here, a lovely cutaway to caterpillars and wild horses; there, a flatulence joke. While Lance continually rebuffs Alvin's attempts to make the younger man face mature responsibilities, the real strength of "Prince Avalanche" involves its curious digressions, including the ghostly presence of a homeless woman the men repeatedly encounter in the woods, an evident symbol of the ancient life cycle the movie's anti-heroes fail to see. Along similar lines, a stern older truck driver (Lance LeGault) repeatedly shows up to urge the men to embrace their romantic troubles. These interactions stand apart from the farcical ingredients and empower the movie with philosophical weight.
The opposing genre extremes never entirely come together, but they do form a compellingly odd tone that provides a framework for examining Green's career to date. Since "Pineapple Express" in 2008, the filmmaker has demonstrated an impulse to move beyond purely mournful storytelling and to use genre as a pathway for innovation. "Prince Avalanche" further demonstrates that work in progress. If not a return to form, it's nevertheless a long-overdue explanatory note for the last five years.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Following its Sundance premiere, "Prince Avalanche" will next play in competition in Berlin, where audiences may appreciate its strange sensibilities more than U.S. crowds. While not destined for commercial success, it should find a decent home with a midsize distributor and perform well on VOD.