This isn’t going to be a review of Prince Avalanche. Stop by Rotten Tomatoes and you can find a raft of those, talking about the charming atmosphere of David Gordon Green’s buddy comedy, the laidback performances of leads Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch and the way the fire-ravaged California forest and Explosions in the Sky score combine to elevate a lovely little film. It’s not that I don’t agree with any of these observations – and references to Beckett plays and Waiting for Godot are sadly outside my personal experience (for now) – but I think there’s more to this film than a lightweight comedy (though given Green’s last few films included Your Highness, I can understand a reluctance to dig too deep).
Be warned, because I want to analyse this film (he says, pushing his glasses up his nose), I’m going to get into some “spoilers.” This isn’t exactly the kind of story you can spoil in a traditional sense, so I wouldn’t stress too much but, look, this is a nice film. It’s available on DVD (or streaming on Netflix, if you’re in the right country for that) at the moment, so maybe you should check it out before reading on?
This film is more than it might initially seem; there’s a hint right there in the name. Prince Avalanche seems an odd title for the film, which follows Alvin (Rudd) and Lance (Hirsch) as they repaint and repair a damaged highway while dealing with lady troubles. The origin isn’t revealed until some way into the film, when Lance weaves a tale of how Alvin is “a prince that had been banished from his kingdom, and forced to work out on the roads with an old peasant like me.”
This fantastical story seems out of place in the film, but it gives insight into a significant theme of the film, a theme of self-deception and fantasy trickling beneath the pair’s fractious friendship. Lance’s fairytale is actually in service of concealing his earlier misconduct, where he’d discovered that his sister was breaking up with Alvin by reading her letter to him and discussed this with an elderly truck driver (Lance LeGault). At this stage in the film, Alvin and Lance have established some modicum of trust, but honesty is supplanted by fantasy – or, if you want to be less generous, lies.
Alvin lies about the state of his relationship with Lance’s sister, constructing an idealistic fantasy that’s at odds with him staying on the road while Lance travels back to town. Lance lies about his own romantic entanglements, weaving a tale of success with the ladies, a tale that slowly crumbles into more mundane reality. He eventually reveals that he’s gotten an older woman pregnant. Prince Avalanche is a chronicle of the way these lies break down into honesty, fiction dissolving into fact … or something approaching it, at least.
There’s more to this reading than a passing observation that both men aren’t consistent truth-tellers, naturally (as this is a common trait to pretty much everyone, fictional or otherwise). The setting of blackened, spindly trees left skeletal by the recent inferno suits the way the fictions that Lance and Alvin present are stripped away. Prince Avalanche begins with the painting of lines on the road, the demarcation of what is and what isn’t. The drunken celebration of the last act is more than a joyous depiction of male camaraderie, it’s a destruction of the tools that create these boundaries, the lies and fantasies that keep us from truly bonding.
The setting provides more than stark beauty and a metaphorical foundation; real fires tore through California in the 1980s, devastating the lives of real people. We get some insight into that when Alvin stumbles upon a woman (Joyce Payne) burrowing through the charred wreckage of what used to be her house. The moment they share is touching; sublime. “Sometimes I feel like I’m digging through my own ashes,” she tells him. A connection between the two forms and lingers. Shortly afterwards we see Alvin wandering through a different house’s wreckage, pretending to live out common domesticity within what used to be a common domicile; now consumed by nature. Both Alvin and this woman pine for something that’s long gone. “Past tense. Everything’s past tense.”
There’s a connection of sorts between Lance and the truck driver I mentioned before, as well, a grizzled fellow with a fondness for vodka and beer. The two bond over a combination of the latter, the driver sharing some loose advice with the youngster, advice that seems oddly pertinent. “You get involved a little too young. Things happen,” the driver reminisces. “Then more things happen, and she takes off. Maybe takes the child with her. You just don’t know. It can get pretty rough.” The driver even wears the exact same overalls as Lance and Alvin – which, certainly, could be explained by him also working on the road, but that doesn’t preclude synchronistic symbolism.
Late in the film, our two protagonists see the lady get into the truck driver’s truck, who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the existence of the woman (in much the same way that Lance tries to deny his pregnant lover). It’s a strange scene, but poignant too. Lance is flummoxed by the driver’s inability to acknowledge the woman sitting beside him, but lest we think that Prince Avalanche is entirely dismissive of the utility of fantasy, Alvin has a different take.
“If there was a woman in that truck,” he calls out. “Would you be good to her? Would you make sure that everything is okay?”
Prince Avalanche is a light-hearted, often gorgeous comedy. It’s also a film about fantasy, about lies. About how we need to tear fantasy away to make a connection sometimes, but sometimes – when we’re bent down, digging in our own ashes – that fantasy is necessary to maintain that connection. To make sure that everything is okay.