Prince Avalanche: Sundance Review

Prince Avalanche

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: David Gordon Green)

Two highway road workers spend the summer of 1988 away from their city lives. The isolated landscape becomes a place of misadventure as the men find themselves at odds with each other and the women they left behind. Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch.

David Gordon Green scales back to a minimalist, character-driven model with warmly satisfying results.

Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch star in David Gordon Green's Texas-set remake of the 2011 Icelandic film "Either Way."

PARK CITY -- Writer-director David Gordon Green takes a break from studio projects to return to his indie roots in the exquisitely crafted existential odd-couple tale Prince Avalanche. Virtually a two-hander for Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as a pair of Texas road maintenance workers, this slice of comedic melancholia suspends the two characters in an absurdist Beckettian limbo from which poignant moments of connection and self-discovery are hatched.

Adapted from the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, the material turns out to be a snug fit for Green. It contains echoes of his early work set off the beaten track in small Southern towns (George Washington, All the Real Girls), as well as glimmers of the broad comedy of his mainstream excursions, like Pineapple Express.

While the core elements of this reluctant buddy movie could almost constitute a pared-down theater piece, the film breathes with real cinematic expansiveness.

Green’s poetic observation skills are the key to that seeming contradiction. No less essential is the cinematography of regular collaborator Tim Orr, which comes off as loose and unfussy but then floors you with images of unexpected majesty. Colin Patton’s editing shuffles between fluidity and jumpiness to give the film a dynamic rhythm. And layered on top of it all are the moody mini-symphonies of Texas post-rock instrumentalists Explosions in the Sky, working with composer David Wingo to create an enveloping sonic landscape.

Physical geography and a stirring sense of place are equally important. The lonely central Texas roads running through Bastrop State Park have a look of desolation in the wake of the 2011 fires that ravaged the area. The shoestring project was shot soon after, before much regeneration had occurred, with the scorched woodlands providing a starkly beautiful canvas for human quandaries. However, the film is actually set in 1988 in the wake of similarly devastating fires.

The two-man crew’s senior member, Alvin (Rudd), is a prickly type who has been working since spring repainting yellow lane dividers and hammering in new roadside markers. Sleeping on-site in a tent, he views the experience as a monastic opportunity for self-reflection. In voiceover, we hear his letters to his girlfriend, Madison, back in town, expressing the hope that his prolonged absence will strengthen their relationship.

Alvin was responsible for getting Madison’s rudderless younger brother, Lance (Hirsch), hired for the summer in an effort to nudge him toward maturity. But Lance is a flake, counting the days until he can escape back to town for the weekends to get laid. “I get horny in nature,” he confesses inconveniently.

The bantering between these mismatched colleagues establishes a mood of minor-key comedy. The sole passerby is a gnarled truck driver (veteran character actor Lance LeGault, who died soon after shooting was completed and to whom the film is dedicated). The old man shares his hooch with them and some cryptic wisdom about the difficulties of women.

When Lance heads off on Friday night, the film makes a gentle tonal shift as Alvin savors his time alone. He cooks up a dinner of squirrel and root vegetables, does a goofy dance while fishing, and mimes playing house in the rain. In one haunting scene he meets an elderly woman (Joyce Payne) sifting through the ashes of her former home, searching for evidence of her previous life. Her ethereal reappearance later in the film suggests she may be a ghost.

When Lance returns from town, his mood has darkened due to the failure of his plans for sexual recreation and the discovery of an unforeseen problem. Alvin also turns sour over news from Madison. The comically violent clash between the protagonists becomes a crazed bacchanal as they guzzle vast quantities of booze and go on a destructive spree. But there’s soulfulness even in the film’s most lunatic moments. Out of that primal release comes a quiet catharsis, suggesting that Alvin and Lance will help each other move forward.

What makes the performances so enjoyable and unexpectedly touching is that the parallel arcs of this twin character study are drawn with such delicacy. Hirsch is impish, abrasive and a little lost, with Lance already seeing himself as “fat and old” compared to the younger, cooler guys on the dance floor. In a nuanced turn that swings from funny to angry to emotionally raw and back again, Rudd draws on stage skills that have been largely untapped in his recent films.

When Alvin and Lance finally tune in to the person beneath the grating flaws, they stop condescending and start listening to one another. Perhaps Green’s chief accomplishment in this odd little gem of a movie is that he coaxes that mutual compassion out of the characters without having to put it into words.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault, Joyce Payne

Production companies: Muskat Filmed Properties, Dogfish Pictures, in association with Lankn Partners, Dreambridge Films, The Bear Media, Rough House Pictures

Director-screenwriter: David Gordon Green, based on the film “Either Way,” by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson

Producers: Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng, Craig Zobel, James Belfer, David Gordon Green

Executive producers: Leo Joseph, Todd Labarowski, David Oskar Olafsson, Arni Filippusson, Tobias Munthe, Theo Youngstein, Matthew Reilly

Director of photography: Tim Orr

Production designer: Richard A. Wright

Music: Explosions in the Sky, David Wingo

Costume designer: Jill Newell

Editor: Colin Patton

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 93 minutes.