What happened to David Gordon Green?
That’s a question more than a few art house denizens have been asking lately as Green, who made his directorial debut 13 years ago with the poetic childhood portrait “George Washington,” has seemingly left his indie spirit behind to direct forgettable raunch-coms (“Your Highness,” “The Sitter”) and Chrysler commercials.
Good news: Green has returned to his roots with “Prince Avalanche,” a low-fi, weird and wonderful two-hander featuring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. Loosely based on a 2011 Icelandic film called “Either Way,” Green’s “Prince Avalanche” often sounds as if it’s been translated from a foreign language, in the best sense. With its surreal backdrop of a burned-out forest, its balance of drama and comedy (with a touch of the supernatural) and protagonists worthy of a Samuel Beckett play, “Prince Avalanche” is that refreshing movie that looks and sounds only like itself.
Rudd and Hirsch play Alvin and Lance, who in 1988 are painting yellow lines down a Texas highway after a series of forest fires have ravaged the nearby land and homes. Making their awkward way down the blacktop in a ramshackle truck and following strict rules on the use of a boombox, these two misfits continually bicker and misunderstand each other, usually making peace by the time they share their canvas tent come nightfall.
Although Alvin and Lance’s encounters are frequently amusing — Alvin, a mustached know-it-all who fancies himself a deep thinker and outdoorsman, is continually looking disapprovingly through his aviators at the shaggy, shambling Lance, a would-be Lothario in his late 20s — “Prince Avalanche” comes most vividly to life when the two men are revealing their inner selves through pure action. (“Can we just enjoy the silence?” is a recurring tag line.)
Working with longtime collaborators — including cinematographer Tim Orr and the band Explosions in the Sky — Green creates an all-enveloping world that begins to feel utterly timeless and self-enclosed. In one trippy sequence, Alvin putters around the campsite alone, frying up a squirrel he’s caught, taking a handful of prescription meds and communing with nature; later, he engages in an impromptu pantomime in the charred remains of exurban sprawl.
The net effect is funny, sad and psychedelic all at once, and as Green subtly pulls the lens back, “Prince Avalanche” becomes less a quirky buddy comedy than a winsome parable about people putting their lives back together, moment by stumbling moment. With Orr’s observant close-ups of insects and small animals and a musical score that swells with emotion, “Prince Avalanche” is a work of eccentric but often profound beauty. That old Green magic, it seems, is back.
R. At the West End Cinema. Contains some sexual content. 94 minutes.