For nearly a decade, David Gordon Green has perfected a certain type of film. With his incredible 2000 debut George Washington, Green introduced audiences to his delicate style while maintaining a deeply entrenched human anchor to all his proceedings. The depressed social conditions of rural North Carolinian youths of George Washington; the doomed romance of his follow-up All the Real Girls; the severed familial bonds of Undertow; the collapsed small-town milieu in Snow Angels. All these films accented by Green’s graceful flourishes and cinematographer Tim Orr’s beautifully-rendered imagery. It was in 2008 when mainstream audiences were presented with Pineapple Express, a vehicle quite unlike any of Green’s previous efforts. While his pictures were never devoid of humor, Green’s work can be best described as emotionally heavy. Green’s subsequent run in comedy hasn’t yielded much critical adoration. Their commercial intake is a different matter: the critically-maligned Your Highness took in over 200% of all of Green’s first four films, combined. To see Green continue on with his commercial efforts makes fiscal sense, though it’s a welcome event to see him reenter the art house with something of a compromise in Prince Avalanche, a comedy defined by the poetic lyricism that made so much of his early work a revelation.
Sweeping melancholy is felt through the onset of Prince Avalanche as Green establishes his setting. The isolated Texas landscape is victim to wildfires as two road workers begin rehabbing the area. Their work consists of painting yellow lines on the road and erecting road markers. Two scenes stick out in the beginning that establishes the balance Green is looking to accomplish. The first happens prior to the credits as Green observes his two characters. Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emilie Hirsch) wake up from their tent and observe the seared woodlands as they begin their work just before sunrise. The visual nuance and nifty credits sequences play to Green’s modus operandi as he captures glances of rural decay and the exercise of masculinity. The tonal presence is set and Prince Avalanche has the makings of a director surveying conquered territory. Yet the subsequent scene plays out as something more akin to the comic instincts found in Pineapple Express A boombox playing “How to Speak German” audiotapes drives the younger Lance insane, prompting him to eject the tape in favor of some generic glam rock (indicators of the film 1980s setting are kept relatively low-key). Alvin, the authoritative and more rational of the two removes the cassette as the two discuss the distribution of “entertainment time” in relation to scholarly pursuits. It’s all a silly though effective reminder of where Green will be taking the film.
Prince Avalanche rarely falters to tonal imbalance, marking this as one of Green’s finest exercises in opposing tones. The work from the principle actors, particularly Rudd, befits the comic nature of the screenplay but never opposes the naturalistic sensibility of the visual palette. But it’s Tim Orr’s cinematography that impresses most: dark and light play into each other as decaying nature gives way to rebirth. Orr captures the symbolic transformation in contrast to the land beautifully, only strengthening my resolve that he’s among the very best DP’s working today.
Balanced and proficient describe the formal mechanics at play in Prince Avalanche, yet it does not possess the emotionally resonance that defined Green’s early work. The eventual bonding between Lance and Alvin works, though their relationship remains rooted in the Green’s screenplay and not something organically produced out of the film itself. And while thematically key to the film’s intent, Green spends little time on developing the importance of the women affecting the men in question. It’s a disappointment that registers in part because Green has proven his ability to tackle this sort of lovelorn affliction with ease (All the Real Girls). These issues don’t deter the overarching experience though, with Green’s Great Compromise™ filtering the good from both his commercial and critical exploits into Prince Avalanche, minus the catharsis.