Review: ‘Prince Avalanche’ is meditative without resolution

Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in the movie "Prince Avalance," a Magnolia Pictures release.
(Magnolia Pictures )

Leave it to off-center auteur David Gordon Green to put a yellow dividing line right down the middle of his new movie, “Prince Avalanche.” You need look no further for his central metaphor.

The broken line is being painted by a crew of two on a road that stretches through the backwoods of Texas, circa 1988, a year after a raging fire scorched 43,000 acres of woodland. A 2011 wildfire that devastated Bastrop State Park in Texas creates an unmatched naturalistic backdrop for a film, fitting because it is as much a meditation on place as people.

Paul Rudd is Alvin, the foreman, though the only one he has to boss around is Lance (Emile Hirsch), who also happens to be his girlfriend’s brother. Lance is a restless guy who needs to grow up, a city boy not happy that he’s missing the party. Alvin intends to be a good influence, but he finds Lance an irritant and an idiot. Therein lies much of the conflict.

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Like an odd odd-couple, they bicker over what’s playing on the boombox — Alvin prefers German-language tapes, Lance favors rock. And big life issues sometimes intrude. But mostly they follow the same routine in silence: Rise early, paint most of the day, do a little fishing, reading or writing, then crawl into a tent for the night. I’ve probably come close to using as many words already as Rudd does in the entire film.

Despite the straight line they spend their days creating, both Alvin’s and Lance’s lives are seriously off-course. Green’s slow reveal of the specifics brings any number of small pleasures.

An old codger occasionally drives through, leaving them with some wisdom and moonshine. It’s a wonderful final turn for character actor Lance LeGault, who died not long after the film wrapped. Probably best known as the crusty colonel in the NBC series “The A-Team,” he makes it seem as if he’s traveled that stretch of highway a million times before.

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The film is an adaptation of the Icelandic indie “Either Way.” Green plucked his new title, “Prince Avalanche,” out of a dream, not because it has any relation to the story but a worry that “either way” might hint at a sexuality between the guys that simply isn’t there.

The film’s tone is closer to the small, intimate character studies of 2000’s excellent “George Washington” and 2003’s gritty “All the Real Girls,” with almost nothing in common with his bigger, messier comedies like 2008’s “Pineapple Express.”

Rudd and Hirsch make surprisingly good polar opposites. Their major fight is a great blend of screwball comedy and total truth. Two guys who’ve never thrown a punch in their lives flailing away.

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Hirsch, who has a way of leaning back in to his characters anyway, makes himself completely at home here. Since Lance is in an extended laconic haze, the “Into the Wild” actor disappears inside it with him.

For Rudd, “Avalanche” is a departure. There are few traces of the easy, accessible humor the popular actor brings to his comic roles. Alvin lets him get tightly wound with an internal tension that plays out in a precision of movement and angry edge to his voice. It’s what you would expect from his character’s Eagle Scout-wannabe forever trying to bring a sense of order to the wild and his world.

But you long for a bit more illumination. Some of the stabs at it — Alvin play-acting what an ordinary life might look like in the charred ruins of a house — feel forced and out of sync. Still, the performance is provocative, enough to wish Rudd would go dramatic more often.

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The director’s longtime cinematographer, Tim Orr, has perhaps never shot more beautifully. The camera becomes another character, picking through the debris or taking a moment to appreciate a sunrise. Shot after shot is so beautifully framed the film could almost stand without a word.

Which brings me back to the story. As intriguing as “Prince Avalanche” can be in its contemplations, and as glad as I am to see Green cozying up to his more elemental and esoteric side, the film ultimately plays like an unfinished thought. It’s a good thought, mind you, but like the road, it seems to go nowhere.