The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Prince Avalanche

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article In 2008, the career of David Gordon Green drastically changed gears when the young director, whose previous low-key, lyrical character studies had brought him near unanimous critical acclaim as well as comparisons to heavyweight filmmakers such as Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett, moved into the realm of mainstream, high-concept comedy. Over the course of half a decade, he directed Your Highness (2011), The Sitter (2011) and the Apatow-produced Pineapple Express (2008). Prince Avalanche has been widely hailed as a return to Green’s roots, and with its relaxed pace, melancholic vibe, poetic visual flourishes, naturalistic tone, rural setting and focus on character over plot, it’s not difficult to see why.

Green’s first two features, George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), are poetic portraits of working-class communities which encompass varied casts of characters closely linked through geographical location, social/economic situation, and shared histories (these are friends, neighbours, family members, and co-workers). Though they both have central plots, the manner in which Green handles their unravelling is unusual, and for a number of reasons.

First of all, the characters are intentionally opaque. They aren’t governed by clear-cut motivations, and it’s often difficult to discern exactly what drives them to act the way they do. In George Washington, for example, there’s little sense of George’s (Donald Holden) internal thoughts after Buddy’s (Curtis Cotton III) death. It could be inferred that his inertia is a result of inner anguish caused by playing a role in the accident, and his dreaminess as an escape mechanism to help deal this pain, but he seems similarly closed-off and pensive at the beginning of the film - his fractured emotional state isn’t caused by the accident, only intensified. No single piece of information we are given about George’s past can completely explain his psychological condition, and it can’t be explained in simple narrative terms.

The film hints at the impulses behind the characters’ actions (enough to allow the viewer to come up with their own interpretation), but never explain them outright. So we can infer George’s motives when he breaks up with his girlfriend, and dresses up as a superhero to direct traffic (Desperate to give back to the community after the loss he’s caused? Driven by a desire escape from his guilt by making himself out to be a grandiose hero? Desperate to prove himself to his berating Uncle?), but he remains, to a large extent, an enigma.

Additionally, each film eschews a traditional three-act, cause-and-effect narrative structure in favour of a far more episodic approach. There are no real obstacles (either internal or external) that the characters need to overcome over the course of the running time, and there is therefore an intentional lack of character development: the main characters don’t overcome their flaws, and end up as essentially the same people they were at the beginning (though there may be some slight changes in their worldviews).

For example, the centrepiece of George Washington is the accidental death of a child, which is covered up by his friends who are partially responsible. However, unlike in a film such as Mean Creek (2004), the rest of the action doesn’t focus on their attempts to evade being caught, arguments over whether or not to turn themselves in, etc. The thematic resonance of the accident, and the way it changes the attitudes and behaviour of the characters in subtle ways as they resume their everyday lives, is what is significant.

The films also include several digressions featuring characters and situations that are only tangentially related to the central plot. An example of this is a lengthy scene depicting George’s Uncle explaining his deep-rooted phobia of dogs. This revelation has not been signalled previously, nor is it referred to later, and it doesn’t have any significant impact on either George’s attitude or the direction of the narrative. Its relation is thematic and serves the purpose of creating a strong sense of a wider community.

Such enigmatic characters and elliptical plotting are rare to find in narrative cinema, and, as a result, some critics have accused these films as being scattershot and inert. But Green clearly employs these tactics in order to more closely capture a sense of the randomness and complexity of everyday life. In reality, of course, each person’s behaviour can’t be explained away with the psychological tidiness that conventional cause-and-effect structures typically provide. Each film creates the illusion of offering us a window into a world without beginnings or endings; in other words, they project a world that more closely resembles our own.

Green’s later comic films, in addition to differing in tone, subject matter and aesthetic style, also demonstrate a vastly different approach to narrative construction. They focus on small mismatched groups of diametrically opposed individuals, forced to band together by circumstances beyond their control. These people begin as antagonistic towards each other, but gradually a friendship grows between them, often based on deeper similarities underlining their surface differences.

They are built on conventional structural formulas and clear-cut character psychologies. Whenever a character in Pineapple Express does something, it is clearly in reaction to their circumstances. Their actions may be misguided sometimes, but it is always clear why they are doing what they are doing. We can only make educated guesses as to the thought processes that lead to George breaking up with his girlfriend in George Washington, or Noel (Zooey Deschanel) cheating on Paul (Paul Schneider) in All the Real Girls, but when Dale (Seth Rogen) blows up at Saul (James Franco) 75 minutes into Pineapple Express, there’s no ambiguity - it’s a clear response to the events that have led to that point in the cause-and-effect narrative. Each interaction moves the characters a little closer to fulfilling their clearly-defined external and internal goals, and the endings provide neat resolutions with all questions answered.

Prince Avalanche, oddly, seems to be a blending of these two modes. Like his comedies, Green's focus in this film is on a pair of broadly drawn, polarized individuals who are forced to spend a long period of time together against their wishes. Their vastly different life philosophies rub against each other, often to comic effect.

However, while Pineapple Express plays off the its main characters’ differences by pushing them through a tightly-structured, incident-laden plot, the duo in Prince Avalanche, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), have no clear external goals or conflicts. Take, for example, the first 30 minutes: we see them hammering a sign into the ground, then arguing over what to play on their shared tape player, and Alvin lends Lance a comic book from his collection. As in Green’s earlier work, there is little narrative momentum driving these scenes, which consist of little more than extended, seemingly aimless conversations. There is the general sense we are being thrown into these characters' lives at almost arbitrary points, witnessing a series of small, everyday scenarios.

However, it soon becomes apparent that Prince Avalanche is considerably more conventional in its storytelling than both All the Real Girls and George Washington. This is primarily because Green’s latest is driven by two clearly telegraphed, linear emotional arcs which are, in fact, pretty in line with the conventions of the buddy comedy genre. They are both initially stuck in a state of arrested development and feel deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Lance is immature, lazy, and afraid to take on any kind of serious commitment; Alvin is emotionally cold and self-aggrandizing. At first, the two men fundamentally misunderstand one another, but they gradually grow closer over the first half. At roughly the mid-point, cracks in both of their affected personae start to show, their flaws and insecurities begin to be revealed (or underlined), causing great friction between them and culminating in an aggressive, resentment-disclosing confrontation. Following this, each character, learning from the values and attitudes of the other, reassesses their life and realises that they need to make drastic changes in order to move forward. They subsequently reconcile, forming a true connection based on mutual understanding and respect. By the end of the film, they have both clearly overcome their internal conflicts: Lance is more willing to settle down and take on adult responsibility, Alvin is more willing to have fun and embrace life, and both are less self-centred and closed-off. They have grown into mature, well-balanced men.

This is not the first time Green has wedded his early aesthetic impulses and thematic concerns to a more traditional narrative structure. The oft-overlooked Undertow (2004) is probably the closest point of reference to Avalanche in Green’s canon. It similarly took the basic form of a relatively high-concept genre (thriller), but placed more emphasis on character and environment than the mechanics of plot and devoted an unusual amount of time to trivial interactions. Prince Avalanche deserves to be appreciated for what it is - a tender, well-realised, character-driven dramedy, but is likely to disappoint anyone hoping for a total return to the loose, “slice of life” style of Green’s earlier films.

This Alternate Take was published on December 06, 2013.

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