Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In the Wild: PRINCE AVALANCHE


Right from the start, David Gordon Green was labeled the Next Great American Auteur. In 2000, his debut feature George Washington, a lyrical and tenderly detailed portrait of a poor young African American boy, marked him as a master in the making. His subsequent films – sensitive romance All the Real Girls (’03), stormy Southern Gothic Undertow (’04), emotional small-town drama Snow Angels (’08) – initially seemed to confirm his status as a director of Serious Intent set on saying Important Things with capital-C Cinema. By now, though, it’s clear that there’s no other director as intent on resisting critical and commercial labels. It took a jaunt through stoner clowning (Pineapple Express), TV (HBO’s Eastbound and Down), unimaginably awful fantasy goofing (Your Highness), and a Hollywood comedy (The Sitter) to redefine his career downwards, in some cases unfairly, but fairly in most. He’s off the pedestal to which he was so prematurely elevated.

Green’s latest feature is Prince Avalanche. It’s undoubtedly his smallest and least important project. Purposely monotonous and adrift, the film features a tiny cast and plotting so loose it may as well be plotless. Paul Rudd stars as a sad sack road crew supervisor, out painting lines and hammering posts along a rural stretch of road. His only companion and employee is his girlfriend’s brother played by Emile Hirsch. The younger kid only got the job because the boss loves his sister and wants to be nice to her. The relationship between the two men is not an easy one, a prickly, reluctantly chummy arrangement that’s just as likely to devolve into total silence as anything else. That’s the main focus of the movie, as the guys slowly let the summer pass them by, working for the weekend. Hirsch heads into town to party while Rudd stays back. He sees himself a wilderness man, fishing, cooking, and writing letters to his girl. By Monday, it’s back to painting stripes on the highway together.

Stuck partway between the unforced lyrical observation of Green’s earlier work and his broader, coarser Hollywood comedy of late, it’s unsuccessful precisely because it’s the worst of both. The film is unfocused and painfully small in scope. The cinematography from Tim Orr, who has done great, evocative work for Green and others for years now, captures the setting with an eye for interesting visual detail. But it quickly grows stagnant. The swirling ambient noise of the soundtrack by the band Explosions in the Sky works overtime overselling importance, while the camera returns again and again to repetitive shots of light dappling leaves and the sun coming up over the crest of the horizon, shots through which Rudd trudges and Hirsch schleps. It’s all so precisely shot and thinly sketched that it feels like the work of a cast and crew seized with a great idea, but who skipped to “how” before really puzzling through a good, clear answer for “why?”

Though Rudd and Hirsch share enjoyable chemistry at times, their characters are frustratingly limited in emotional range. They’re stumbling along, doubting their masculinity, alternating between dumbly meditative and sweetly insecure, hesitantly bonding with one another if they can ever get past their surface nastiness towards each other. But no amount of homosocial bonding can make these characters feel anything but incomplete. Rudd’s letters and Hirsch’s urgently recounted stories of hook ups and relationship strategies don’t flesh out their backgrounds so much as they play like an attempt to do so. It just feels phony. By the time the movie arrives at its only plot point of any consequence, it feels entirely unexpected and unconvincing because it takes place almost entirely off screen and is entirely unmotivated. This is a strangely passive film. It’s the kind of movie that feels like a couple of actors stuck in an acting exercise. To see the movie is to watch talented people play around in the forest for a while.

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