Thursday, January 9, 2014

Film Review - "Prince Avalanche"

A review of Prince Avalanche after the jump:

Gently diffuse sunlight pervades the majority of Prince Avalanche, hovering above and around its protagonists as they traverse long stretches of highway, and casting a soft glow on grass, woods, and other images of natural beauty. Human created beauty is nowhere to be found: all of it destroyed in an enormous 1987 series of wildfires. Writer/director David Gordon Green occasionally references this disaster within the film, but it's unclear exactly what purpose such interludes serve, other than perhaps demonstrating human resilience or pointing out the relative insignificance of the characters' squabbling, bonding, and occasional flirtations with self-awareness by comparison. Even as they face major challenges in their lives, the setting seems to serve as a reminder to keep it all in perspective. If this message is ultimately a bit muddled, it lends an additional level of understatement to the slight and free flowing narrative, concerning two men tasked with repainting those winding roads the following year.

These two, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), are for the most part the only people we spend a significant amount of time with. Oh, there's a trucker who shows up a couple of times and shares a drink with them, and a strange woman who Alvin meets at the ruins of one of the houses, but this is by and large a two-character piece centering on how the pair's relationship changes and deepens over time. As dictated by the pleasantly wispy tone, their friendship ebbs and flows, never feeling anything less than fully natural in its contours. Alvin begins by viewing Lance as a fairly useless and immature person, giving him the job solely because of his relationship with Lance's sister: a reputation that the younger man quite frankly deserves. Yet Alvin is no faultless human specimen either: bossy, overconfident, and at times more than a tad pretentious.

They don't necessarily get any less off-putting as the film progresses. Instead, Prince Avalanche gently peels back their alienating attitudes—largely through their interactions with each other, but also through various events in their separate lives—to reveal the insecurities that form the basis for them. As is usually the case, each is more acutely aware of the other's faults than they are of their own: something that Green's script (based on the Icelandic film Either Way) plays for both gentle comedy and quiet drama. It eventually coalesces in a cathartic moment of mutual recognition that is just beautifully played by Rudd and Hirsch, who both deliver performances that—while they don't downplay the duo's more insufferable attributes—have an endearing quality to them that suggests the events of this movie aren't the end of their maturation process. (Though the film ultimately leaves plenty of room for ambiguity in that area.)

Prince Avalanche isn't quite a great film; as already mentioned, the scenes involving the wildfire don't entirely cohere into anything profound, and it doesn't really do anything especially new or novel with the well-worn buddy and road movie genres. But by and large, it is an exquisite example of both, as well as one of the most beautiful films of 2013 (thanks to those stunningly lit outdoor expanses, captured in languid long take after languid long take). The cinematic beauty on display is arguably surpassed by Explosions in the Sky's remarkable score, whose stirring melodies complement the visual splendor and narrative simplicity nicely. Like everything else in the film, it ultimately evokes a feeling of optimism that is simply infectious. Any movie that can capture such a tone without once feeling cloying is a fine achievement.

Grade: B+

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