DIRECTED BY David Gordon Green
STARS Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch
David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche opens with the declaration that, in the late 1980s, a massive forest fire in Texas burned through tens of thousands of acres, destroyed thousands of houses and claimed four lives. How much that incident ties into the plot depends entirely on how each viewer absorbs the movie that follows.
Green, who made acclaimed indies (George Washington, All the Real Girls) before going Hollywood (yes, he directed Pineapple Express, but he also helmed the atrocious Your Highness) takes a few tentative steps back toward his own origin story, mounting a minimalist, no-budget movie about soulful Alvin (Paul Rudd) and shallow Lance (Emile Hirsch), laborers tasked with painting yellow lines down the back roads that have been damaged by the wildfire. Alvin, a competent outdoorsman, enjoys the serenity of nature, while Lance is only working for the weekends, when he can head back into town and enjoy the company of prospective girlfriends. They bicker constantly, with Alvin viewing Lance as incompetent while Lance sees Alvin as pretentious. The only people they encounter on the road are a profane trucker who keeps handing them homemade liquor (a wonderful Lance LeGault, who passed away last fall) and an elderly woman rummaging through the ashes of her former home (Joyce Payne, a nonprofessional local who did lose her home in a 2011 Texas fire).
The encounters with the secondary characters prove to be the best parts of Prince Avalanche, as the confrontations between Alvin and Lance are occasionally tedious, stirring the sense that Green had to meet the quota of a 90-minute running time. What's more, the efficient work by Rudd and Hirsch can't disguise the fact that, for all of the picture's indie charms, these two characters still feel like the manufactured type that would turn up in a bawdy mainstream comedy.
And what of that opening statement? I suspect many will view it as Green's attempt to make a meaningful movie out of what they ultimately feel is a fumbled lark, while others will apply it rigidly to the story and come up with a haunting, melancholy work. It's impossible to explain without spoilers, but this is definitely the kind of movie that can lead to vigorous lobby chatter after the fact.
(Prince Avalanche will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, at Crownpoint. Admission is $10. For more info, go to www.backalleyfilmseries.com.)