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'Prince Avalanche' - Out of the fire, a tale on the road to nowhere ★★★ 1/2

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

August 15, 2013

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Here's a funny, poignant oddball of a movie, existing on a galaxy far, far away from the likes of "Pacific Rim" or "World War Z" or anything whose computer-generated actions speak louder than words.

"Prince Avalanche," from writer-director David Gordon Green, started with Green's impulse to shoot in a specific, devastated corner of the world near his home in Austin, Texas: Bastrop State Park, following a wildfire that turned much of the area into an ashen limbo. What sort of movie could I make there, in a hurry, before things turned green again? he wondered.

The answer: a remake of a little-seen Icelandic road film, "Either Way" (2011), about a couple of highway workers in the middle of nowhere, left to their own conversational devices. Two noteworthy supporting performances add to the texture, but "Prince Avalanche" belongs to Paul Rudd, playing a tightly wrapped, by-the-book loner, opposite his younger, sweetly aimless colleague, portrayed by Emile Hirsch.

Alvin, the Rudd character, is dating the unseen sister of Lance (Hirsch), and the latter owes his job as a highway yellow-line painter and roadside post-digger to the former. They share a tent, and this being the late 1980s, they must negotiate equal time on the boom box. Alvin, whose letters to his girlfriend provide the voice-over narration, considers his time away from the city and from his relationship to be necessary self-improvement, a respite from all that vexes him. Lance just wants to head into the nearest town and run around. The work is isolation and drudgery incarnate. The men talk of women, of disappointments and frustrations, and as they weigh their respective futures, Alvin and Lance encounter a couple of mysterious figures reminding them, and the audience, of the unseen forces afoot in all our lives.

Lance LeGault, who died shortly after filming, plays a passing truck driver, and he's a vaguely menacing delight. And in a crucial cameo, Joyce Payne quietly takes over the movie for a spell as a wildfire survivor. Then Rudd and Hirsch take it back from her. It's gratifying to watch two wily performers in roles unlike much of what they've done in the movies thus far. Rudd makes Alvin's tense self-regard both amusing and sad; Hirsch has a great pair of perma-shocked eyebrows for listening.

Listening: That's what a lot of "Prince Avalanche" is about. Green shot the film with a small crew, embracing both the expanse of the topography and the narrow focus of the story. I haven't felt much of anything toward Green's recent comedies ("The Sitter," "Your Highness," even the comparatively interesting "Pineapple Express"), but I love a lot of his earlier work, particularly "George Washington" and "Snow Angels." "Prince Avalanche" exists on a bridge spanning both those sections of his career. It's an actors' showcase. But Green films it with real feeling and an eye for parts of the Lone Star State that, as we can see, are no longer.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Prince Avalanche" - 3 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for profanity and sexual dialogue)

Running time: 1:34

Opens: Friday. Also available on iTunes and VOD.